'Unlikely' NHS boss had the respect of her staff
THE fall will be as swift as the rise was gradual in the career of Julia Bridgewater at the University Hospital of North Staffordshire.
Within just two weeks of announcing her resignation, she will leave the post of chief executive it took 28 years to reach.
Yet the mother-of-three had to be persuaded in October 2006 to take the helm of one of Britain's biggest hospitals. The previous year she had reluctantly agreed to be its acting chief executive at the height of the trust's last financial meltdown.
She plugged the gap left by the unexpected departure of troubleshooter Antony Sumara who had been sent in by the Government to tackle the spiralling debts.
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And before that a game of boardroom musical chairs was played out as chief executives Stuart Gray, Dr Keith Prowse, David Fillingham, David Crowley and Peter Blythin all left in quick succession.
After continuing Mr Sumara's work to get the budget in the black she took the job permanently.
Slightly diminutive in size and almost 'mumsy' in demeanour, Mrs Bridgewater cuts an unlikely figure as the head of an organisation with 7,000 staff and a £450 million budget.
Such a huge hospital, providing care for a million people, would have its fair number of headstrong characters so Mrs Bridgewater needed a hard underside to her amenable personality to tame egos and make her own mark in the boardroom.
But she provided the stability the hospital so badly needed to continually improve its services and bring to the Potteries some specialities and procedures unrivalled in most other towns and cities.
One example of her steely determination was how she all-but wiped out MRSA from the wards, despite being told by some senior figures back then not to bother as it was an impossible task.
And after previous administrations had failed, she presided over the £400 million transformation of the crumbling Victorian facilities into one of the most state-of-the-art hospitals in Europe.
But besides the mounting debts, clouds have gathered of late over the hospital's worsening ability to see A&E patients quickly enough and it now cannot cope alone with backlogs in some clinics.
Since graduating from Manchester University and passing an NHS management training scheme, Mrs Bridgewater has, uniquely for an NHS chief executive, spent all her career at the same trust.
She started as an assistant administrator in 1984 at the Royal Infirmary, which ironically closed just weeks before her own departure from UHNS. She then went on to move between most administrative jobs at the hospital.
The respect she holds with the big hitters on the board is a reflection of the way she is perceived deep in the departments of the complex.
Whenever I have walked with her along its corridors, she is constantly greeted by staff – and knows both their first names and something about their lives – be they senior consultants or humble domestics.
Having always lived in Newcastle – now with husband Nick and three children, aged 10 to 24 – Mrs Bridgewater once told me she is driven by the need to make her hospital the best there is 'because my loved ones will need treating there one day'.
Unusual for someone in such a lofty position, she has always refused to make her phone number ex-directory – even though that has allowed me to bother her at nights and weekends over some breaking UHNS story.
She even saw the funny side when I tracked her down to her mother's home where she was just sitting down to Sunday dinner.
With such an informal and likeable persona it is no wonder her e-mail inbox was last night full of messages voicing shock and sadness at her departure, thanking her for the past and wishing her well for the future.