As the NHS marks its 75th anniversary today, PETER BARRON pays tribute to one of Darlington’s longest-serving GPs, who was inspired to specialise in heart failure by the premature death of his father...

AS he reflects on the end of a 37-year career as a GP, Ahmet Fuat reads the words on a card that’s been left for him: “Thank you for looking after me. We strongly believe your quick actions saved my life.”

The 'Thank You' card, from a leukaemia survivor, is one of several on Ahmet's desk at Carmel Medical Practice, in Darlington – all from patients with reasons to be grateful for his care.

“It makes it all worthwhile,” he smiles.

Over nearly four decades, he's lost count of the number of patients he’s treated, but it’s been a fulfilling career.

“What gives me most pride is having looked after so many people with such an enormous range of conditions. As a GP, you never know what’s going to come through the door next,” he says.

“What I’ve loved about being a GP is that your patients become almost like friends because you see them over such a long time.”

Ahmet's father, Fuad Ahmed, was a forestry commissioner in Cyprus, and met his wife, Aileen, when he was sent on a scholarship to Aberdeen University.

Ahmet was born in Cyprus and spent the first 15 years of his life there before being sent to stay with an aunt in Aberdeen.

He had four uncles in the medical profession – two surgeons, a paediatrician, and a pharmacist – and, as a boy, Ahmet would spend his summers delivering medicines to elderly people.

It encouraged him to want to be a doctor, and he became the first pupil from Powis Academy to study medicine. By the time he was in his third year at Aberdeen University, he’d decided to be a GP, attracted by the variety offered by general practice.

However, he also had a special interest in heart disease, and that was reinforced in the most traumatic circumstances when his father died of a heart attack, aged just 47, while he was on a treadmill, being tested for heart disease.

“He was so young, and it had a profound effect on me. It made me want to find out as much as I could about heart disease, so I could help others,” he recalls.

Ahmet went on to join the Cleveland Vocational Training Scheme, and did GP attachments at Moorlands Surgery, in Darlington, under the late Dr Martin Rhodes.

It was at Moorlands that Ahmet met his wife, Karen, who was working on reception. They’ve now been married for 35 years and have two children, Ayse and Tamer.

In 1986, he was offered a job as a GP partner at a practice in Darlington's Stanhope Road. The practice moved to a new site in Carmel Road three years later, on land bought from the Carmelite order of nuns.

While working as a GP, Ahmet remained passionate about education and research, and Carmel has been a research practice for 30 years.

Most of his own research focused on coronary care, and he embarked on a PhD, in heart failure, at Durham University in 2001, studying part-time for seven years, and being offered a honorary professorship in 2008.

Along the way, he was also motivated by the tragic circumstances that led, in May 1999, to the death of 38-year-old father-of-two, Ian Weir, pictured bottom left, who was a photographer for The Northern Echo, and a patient at Carmel Medical Practice.

After surviving a heart attack, Ian, pictured below, had been told he needed an “urgent” triple heart bypass, but died of a second heart attack, having waited eight months for the operation.

Darlington and Stockton Times:

At that time, heart bypass waiting times in Britain averaged 12 months, compared to three months in other parts of Europe. Ian’s death led to a campaign, driven by The Northern Echo, to reduce heart bypass waiting times. Darlington’s MP at the time was Health Secretary, Alan Milburn, and the campaign resulted in the country’s first National Framework For Coronary Care, reducing bypass waiting times from the average of 12 months to three months.

“Ian’s death made a massive difference – it was the catalyst for people to make a lot of noise and, thankfully, the Government listened,” says Ahmet, who wrote a letter to Mr Milburn in support of the campaign.

“The national framework totally changed access to cardiologists, diagnosis and surgery. As well as what happened to my father, the Ian Weir case really spurred me on in my work around coronary care.”

That specialism has included working alongside Professor Jerry Murphy and Vicky Duffy, a British Heart Foundation-sponsored specialist nurse, to establish the country's first one-stop diagnostic clinic for suspected heart failure in 2002.

The clinic, at Darlington Memorial Hospital, has become a model for other parts of the country.

In 2016, Ahmet and GP colleague Kathryn Griffith set up the Primary Care Cardiovascular Society. The society now has 3,600 members, with Ahmet serving as the first president, before becoming education and research lead.

As well as serving the NHS well, Ahmet has also seen the benefits as a patient, having been treated for tonsil cancer five years ago.

"The treatment was amazing, and I'm now cancer free, but it brought it home how much we should all value what we have with the NHS," he says.

Ahmet was presented with an Outstanding Achievement Award at The Northern Echo Health and Care Awards last year, and tributes have been led by Helen McLeish, clinical director of Darlington Primary Care Network.

"Ahmet has given a lifetime of exceptional service, not just as a GP, but as someone who has made a significant contribution to research and education around coronary care," she says.

The plan now is to take a couple of months off, but Ahmet has every intention of continuing to support the medical profession through research and teaching.

"I'll miss my patients, and the great staff I've worked with over the years. I wouldn't be where I am without my family and the people I'm lucky to have had as colleagues," he says.

"But I'm sure I'll continue to be involved in research and education because it's been my passion."

The cards on his desk show it's a passion that's been appreciated – and underline the value of GPs.

MEANWHILE, a happy postscript to a story I wrote recently about one of Ahmet Fuat's colleagues at Carmel Medical Practice.

It told how health care assistant, Sarah Burke, did 100 skips a day for a month to raise more than £3,500 for Teesdale Cancer Research after members of her family were affected by the disease.

Shortly before I called back at the practice to interview Ahmet, a patient had been in to make another donation of £500 after reading Sarah's story in The Northern Echo.

"I couldn't believe it, but it's fantastic and I'm so grateful," she said.

Darlington and Stockton Times: Sarah Burke skipping outside Carmel Medical Practice