Blackpool's Dr Jim reflects on Covid battle as he prepares for new role

One of the doctors who led the fight against Covid in Blackpool is leaving the Fylde coast to take on a new role in medicine.

By Shelagh Parkinson
Friday, 20th May 2022, 3:15 pm
Updated Friday, 20th May 2022, 5:02 pm

Dr Jim Gardner became a familiar face to many residents thanks to his weekly video updates on Covid figures at Blackpool Victoria Hospital.

He also handed out advice and reassurance - while behind his public face he was tackling the biggest health crisis of recent times.

Dr Gardner is due to start a new role next month as medical director at Liverpool University Hospitals, where he plans to build on the experiences he had in Blackpool.

Dr Jim Gardner

He had been medical director at BVH for just a few weeks, having started the job in January 2020, when the Covid pandemic began making an impact in the UK.

He recalls: "There was a moment at the end of February when I had to talk to the hospital board about going into something and we didn't know what we were facing.

"It was a profound leadership moment - it was, this is what you are paid for."

Dr Gardner says the hospital reacted quickly to set up a task force as it became clear services were set to come under enormous pressure.

Blackpool Victoria Hospital

He said: "There were all the challenges around PPE (personal protective equipment), and would our oxygen supply be enough to put huge numbers of patients on oxygen.

"Could we create three or four times the number of critical care beds we needed?

"One of our consultants Jason Cupitt had a military background, and he helped me understand what we would need to create a battleground approach.

"We had to create new spaces, and that's not trivial in critical care as you have all this complex kit that comes with it."

Dr Gardner is modest about his own impact on the wider public, saying he felt his weekly message eventually "became boring", but community engagement was vital in the battle against Covid.

He added: "One of my reflections is that heroes emerged from all corners of the organisation, not just doctors but right through the workforce."

As the pandemic progressed into the vaccination programme, the work of researchers and community teams came to the fore with Blackpool having the best record in the country when it came to care home immunisation.

Studies and trials carried out at BVH have played their part in successful treatments of Covid today, with people still suffering from the virus and the potential of further variants to come.

Dr Gardner said: "I'm very proud of the research we have done and we were very quick in recruiting patients to the recovery trials.

"This work is informing treatments today. There are new variants in South Africa and we have free travel so they could spread which means we still need to be vigilant."

The challenge now is also to manage the huge backlog of patients waiting for treatment which the pandemic has created, while pressures on the emergency department continue.

Dr Gardner said: "We recognise there is a big backlog of patients on the waiting list and we are trying to be as creative as we can be to reach capacity to get through these lists quickly and safely."

This includes a new 24 bed ward at BVH which is being used for patients awaiting discharge in order to free up beds in general wards.

Dr Gardner is handing over responsibility to his successor Chris Barben, a colorectal surgeon from Aintree Hospital, who is taking over as medical director at BVH.

Meanwhile he is looking forward to his new role at a bigger trust with responsibility for four hospitals.

His career route from being a GP in Kendal has seen him work as a medical director at North Lancashire Primary Care Trust, and help set up the medical school at UCLAN in Preston.

But it is the people who "go the extra mile to deliver the best care they can" that he will miss most from his stint at Blackpool.

Dr Gardner added: "And sometimes it's really difficult to do that when the emergency department has 120 people in it, and people are in the corridor.

"We know that's not the kind of care we want. Colleagues are pushing themselves further and further to give patients care.

"And they need to know there is a leadership team that supports them."