Dr Larissa Kerecuk organised a surprise 12th birthday party for patient Sabah Amin and sends her a card or present every birthday as well as Christmas and New Year cards
The Daily Mail’s Health Hero Awards honour the unsung champions of the NHS, those who go the extra mile with no thought of thanks or reward. And we need YOU to help identify them. Five finalists will receive their awards from The Prime Minister at 10 Downing Street and the winner will also receive a £5,000 holiday. As Theresa May explains why these awards matter, we tell the story of one truly inspiring nominee…
Sabah Amin woke up on her 12th birthday alone in a bleak hospital isolation room. ‘A nurse came in and wished me happy birthday but I just wanted to cry and turned to face the wall.
‘I felt so lonely. I thought of my family and friends at home while I was imprisoned in hospital,’ she says.
It was one of Sabah’s lowest points. In and out of hospital since having kidney cancer diagnosed when she was a year old, she had survived surgery to remove part of her lung when she was two and a half, and endured two years of chemotherapy followed by a kidney transplant at the age of six.
After all she’d been through, she was looking forward to her 12th birthday celebrations, which she had been painstakingly planning for months, determined to fight back and have a normal life.
Yet now she was back in hospital after her weakened immune system led to an emergency admission for pneumonia.
But if all seemed hopeless, Sabah had reckoned without consultant paediatric nephrologist Dr Larissa Kerecuk – a human dynamo known to her patients and their families as ‘Wonder Woman’.
Recalling the surprise party, Sabah’s mother Naheeda said: ‘There wasn’t a dry eye in the room. I burst into tears and realised the nurses were all weeping’
Seeing Sabah’s dismay, Larissa organised a surprise party: despite her punishing schedule as a kidney specialist at Birmingham Children’s Hospital, she baked a cake, raced out in her break to buy gifts and decorations, blew up balloons and invited a large gathering of Sabah’s family and friends.
That evening Larissa led the wide-eyed girl into the ward’s reception area – where a sea of familiar faces awaited her.
Sabah’s mother Naheeda recalls: ‘There wasn’t a dry eye in the room. I burst into tears and realised the nurses were all weeping. I hugged Larissa and she had tears in her eyes, too. I said, “How can I ever thank you for this?”’
Six years on, Sabah herself has a struggle not to cry at the memory.
‘There were bowls of pick’n’mix, birthday banners hanging from the ceiling and a cake and my family and friends – and standing in the middle was this amazing doctor who had brought my party to me.
‘At that moment I worshipped her – and I have never stopped. And that day something just clicked in my head.’
It was a turning point, says Naheeda. ‘Sabah had been so low it was as if all hope had gone. But at the end of the party she stood up and made a speech and I saw the old, fighting Sabah was back.’
Sabah first met Larissa when she needed a kidney transplant. The operation was scheduled for 6pm but, at the last minute, the theatre was one doctor short so the operation was going to be cancelled.
Sabah first met Larissa when she needed a kidney transplant. Larissa had just arrived at Birmingham Children’s that week as a junior doctor and missed a date with her partner Bill to take care of Sabah. Pictured left to right: Dr Larissa Kerecuk, Naheeda Amin and Sabah Amin
Naheeda, 39, from Oldbury, West Midlands, recalls: ‘Larissa had just arrived at Birmingham Children’s that week as a junior doctor. She had her coat and hat on ready to leave at the end of her last shift that week, and looked exhausted.
‘She was almost out of the door when she heard the chief surgeon say he was a doctor down. She immediately volunteered to assist.
‘I only discovered later that she had a date who had driven up to Birmingham and spent three hours lost before he was forced to eat in a restaurant alone.
‘When my daughter was wheeled out of theatre, Larissa squeezed my arm and said, “She’s not just Sabah any more. She’s my Sabah.” Since then, that is what she has always called her.’
Larissa laughs at the memory of her disastrous date. ‘That was my partner Bill. He realised he had been stood up – but he’s still with me all these years later and he knows all too well that my young patients come before anyone else!
‘Instead of relaxing, he spends his weekends fundraising with me – rattling cans or running fundraising dinners and events.
‘Every year we organise a pumpkin run, growing pumpkins in our greenhouse and allotment, and organising a pumpkin club with other allotment owners so 30 or more pumpkins are delivered to hospital for the children to carve while waiting for dialysis.’
And at the end of each 12-hour day, Larissa arrives home to spend further hours at her computer applying for charity funding and organising fundraising events.
Her work doesn’t stop there, either. Realising that many families who have children with rare and undiagnosed conditions were struggling in isolation, Larissa launched the Superstar Club as a support group.
Twenty families turned up for the first meeting two years ago – and this summer 400 gathered for Larissa’s latest event.
She has organised a Christmas party this year, and says with a twinkle in her eye: ‘I’ve managed to find real reindeer for the children. They’ll love it!’
It’s the little acts of compassion that make Larissa so special, say the Amin family. She has sent Sabah a card or present every birthday, as well as Christmas and New Year cards. ‘If I sit an exam, I’ll get a text from her telling me she’s thinking of me,’ says Sabah, who is now studying health and social care. Inspired by Larissa, she hopes to work in a hospital helping other young people.
Sabah says Larissa buys toys and activity books for young patients – and looks out for their parents, too: ‘When it’s Mum’s wedding anniversary, Larissa always sends her a card and a gift.’
Naheeda, a mother of six, says: ‘I try to be brave and not cry in front of my children but Larissa’s kindness means so much.
‘When I first met her, I couldn’t speak English well and I was struggling to cope with four-week-old twins. Larissa would visit us to make me a cup of tea, and offer to do my shopping when I couldn’t leave Sabah’s side.
‘Four years ago a blood vessel ruptured in Sabah’s transplanted kidney. She lost a lot of blood and the kidney had to be removed.
‘My mother had just died and I was terrified as well as grief-stricken. I was sitting alone when Larissa happened to see me – she put her arms around me, then went to the canteen and bought me a drink and a sandwich, realising I hadn’t eaten for hours.’
Sabah, who lives at home, now needs dialysis three times a week – ‘Larissa gave me confidence to operate a dialysis machine at home for Sabah,’ says her mother. ‘I can ring Larissa night or day and I know she’ll be there for us.’
Natasha Hawley’s family is another of the many to have benefited from Larissa’s all-encompassing care and devotion.
Her son Aidan was born prematurely 15 years ago. He has cerebral palsy and epilepsy, as well as a genetic condition not yet identified.
‘Larissa has saved Aidan’s life with her skill as a doctor, but she has given me my life back too,’ says Natasha, 39, from Medway, Kent.
‘Aidan needed 22 operations in his early years. I nearly had a breakdown through stress, and I could only sleep for two hours at a time because his airway continually needed checking.
‘Larissa was a junior doctor but she was the one doctor who listened to me. She seemed to know instinctively if I was having a bad day, and was there with a hug or a cup of tea or a cake. And she was so loving towards Aidan, unlike some other doctors who were brisk and businesslike.’
Her other son Rhys, 11, is autistic and has ADHD. ‘When Rhys needed a blood test recently, she sat with him in the waiting room, even though she’s not his doctor, so he didn’t panic.
We came to see her in Birmingham last month and expected to have a quick coffee together but Larissa whisked us to Marco Pierre White’s restaurant and insisted on paying the entire bill
‘Her kindness leaves me lost for words. The children adore her, the parents rely on her and when she walks into the room and smiles, the whole place lights up.’
There is no doubting Larissa’s extraordinary empathy for patients and their families. And behind it lies a huge personal sacrifice. For she and Bill have chosen to remain childless so Larissa can concentrate on the young patients in her care.
She says: ‘I decided early in my career that I couldn’t have children and be the sort of totally dedicated doctor I am. So I decided to concentrate on being a doctor.
‘My mum and grandmother say that my patients are like my children, though! I feel so proud of them when they utter their first words or take their first steps, start school or pass their driving tests and get their first boyfriends and girlfriends.’
Larissa wanted to be a doctor for as long as she can remember – ‘I used to immunise my dolls’ – but she had to learn English from scratch at the age of 13 when her parents moved to the UK from Brazil. She trained at Guy’s and St Thomas’ Medical School in London, qualifying as best student in 1998.
As a young doctor, seeing a mother care for a dying toddler was a formative experience. ‘I saw senior doctors being arrogant and assuming they knew best, but this mother had read everything she could about her daughter’s condition,’ Larissa recalls. ‘I realised then that parents really can know best. I vowed to always listen and to learn.’
NHS boss backing our awards
‘The Daily Mail’s Health Hero Awards are themselves an act of public service, honouring the skill and dedication of brilliant NHS staff,’ says Simon Stevens, chief executive of NHS England.
‘It has been a year where selfless commitment to the care of others has been magnified through the terrible events we have seen in London and Manchester. But we also take pride in the individuals who go the extra mile day in, day out, to look after the one and a half million patients whom the National Health Service helps every day.
‘As the NHS approaches its 70th birthday next year, there has never been a better time to recognise and pay tribute to these extraordinary people.’
During a stint at Great Ormond Street on a cancer ward, the death of a two-year-old boy affected her particularly deeply and ‘the loss was so hard that I decided to leave oncology’.
She became a renal specialist and joined Birmingham Children’s Hospital in 2005, becoming a consultant four years later.
Noticing how many patients lost kidneys after moving from child to adult care, Larissa developed transition programmes across the North-East to educate and support teenage kidney patients as they moved into adult services. On top of her normal NHS workload, she continues to run transition clinics at Birmingham.
Larissa, now rare disease lead at Birmingham Children’s Hospital, will soon head the UK’s first rare disease centre for children, based at the hospital and due to open in January. Children from around the country will be treated there.
As Larissa explains, the number of children affected is rising: ‘These rare genetic diseases used to be a forgotten area of medicine and even now just 5 per cent of patients receive any treatment. About 75 per cent of rare diseases affect children, and 30 per cent die before their fifth birthday.’
She is determined to improve genetic diagnosis as the first step towards new treatments, and oversees the 100,000 Genomes Project at Birmingham – a UK-wide programme to sequence 100,000 genomes from 70,000 patients with a rare disease or cancer, and their families. And she is also researching the impact a child with a rare disease has on siblings.
But all this isn’t the only reason she is known as Wonder Woman. That came about because she has abseiled 180 ft down a ten-storey building – twice – to raise money for the new centre.
‘I’m terrified of heights, then I remembered how brave my young patients are and that gave me the courage to continue,’ she says. ‘They are the ones who inspire me.’
I know from my own experience what a difference our doctors and nurses make
BY THE PRIME MINISTER
My visit to the Royal Manchester Children’s Hospital in the aftermath of the sickening terrorist attack in May was something I will never forget.
To see the pain those children were in and witness the traumatic impact on their families was absolutely heartbreaking.
But something else has stayed with me from that visit, too. For there, in response to the worst that humanity could do, I saw the very best.
Theresa May visited Royal Manchester Children’s Hospital in the aftermath of the Manchester bombing earlier this year
I met paramedics who had raced to the scene, thinking nothing of their own safety but only of the safety of others. I met inspirational doctors and nurses who had been working 24-hour shifts to treat the injured and save many lives. And I spoke to the families of those being treated, who told me about the extraordinary care their loved ones were receiving.
So alongside the horror and anger over what had happened in Manchester, I felt once again that deep and overwhelming sense of pride we all share in our National Health Service – and a humbling gratitude for the incredible people who work within it.
I felt the same on the visits I made to hospitals in London in the aftermath of the Westminster and London Bridge terrorist attacks, and after the devastating tragedy at Grenfell Tower.
In every instance, what struck me was not only the medical expertise of the staff, but the compassion with which people were treated and the way the NHS, in an emergency, clicks into action.
People who weren’t on shift came in, others stayed long after their shift was over, not because anyone had asked them to, but because they knew something serious was happening and they wanted to help.
I know that the feelings of admiration and gratitude we have for all those working in our NHS are felt by thousands of families in hospitals and surgeries up and down the country, 24 hours a day and seven days a week.
For time and again, the NHS gives true meaning to our belief that access to healthcare should be based on need, not on the ability to pay.
And time and again, it is those in our health service who embody that spirit, going above and beyond the call of duty in caring for our loved ones and comforting us in some of life’s most difficult moments.
So I am delighted that the Daily Mail is once again honouring our national Health Heroes with a nationwide search for the most inspirational acts of kindness and compassion from people in all parts of our NHS.
From the surgeon in the operating theatre to the nurse visiting first-time parents in their home; from the GP receptionist to the volunteer at a community mental health cafe, the Health Hero Awards will honour all those whose work and selfless dedication make such a difference to our lives, yet all too often goes unrecognised.
I know from my own experience what a difference our doctors and nurses can make. After being diagnosed with type 1 diabetes, I was referred to clinical nurse specialists.
Nurse specialists work closely with doctors, nurses and other healthcare professionals to help improve the understanding of a range of conditions and their treatments, from diabetes to Parkinson’s to arthritis.
These nurses were attached to the local hospital and in the early days, as I was adjusting to the new treatment regimen, having the comfort of knowing there was someone I could pick up the phone to, and who could give me advice, was really reassuring.
I’m a great believer, with these long-term conditions, in as much self-management as possible, and to have someone who can give you that expertise is really helpful.
It is the reassurance that nurse specialists provide which is key. And it is this reassurance, this care, this compassion that is in the DNA of our NHS.
That is why, over the past 70 years, it has become one of our most loved institutions, indelibly written into the identity of our nation. As we saw in the unforgettable opening ceremony of the London Olympics in 2012, it is part of our statement to the world about who we are and what we believe in.
So let us celebrate our NHS with pride and recognise it for the extraoardinary institution it is.
Day in, day out, we know that if we are in an emergency situation and need that care from the NHS, it will be there – and that the people who work within it will do their very best for us.
I hope you will continue to show your appreciation and share your stories by nominating your Health Heroes in the coming weeks.
And I look forward to welcoming the winners to Downing Street in December.