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Sunday 18 March 2018
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‘I feel proud and privileged to have this job’

From RAF medic at the age of 16 to practice manager, Darren Dalzell talks to Kaye McIntosh about his vision for the future and the challenges he faced in his personal life

Easingwold in North Yorkshire is a pretty market town where people come to retire. Not only the patients, but also the practice manager at Millfield Surgery. There can’t be many managers who see the NHS as a retirement job, but 26 years in the RAF have given Darren Dalzell a certain perspective. When your role has involved dealing with every emergency medical flight at an international base in Afghanistan, the word ‘unflappable’ really is an understatement.

Darren was the practice manager at Kandahar base, responsible for 30,000 military and civilian personnel. Meeting medical flights meant seeing some devastating injuries — and worse. The coping mechanism was very British: ‘After an incident you sit round and have a cup of tea. It’s all about the camaraderie.’

It’s that support that drew him to the RAF. His mother died when he was 14. ‘I lived with my grandparents but they both passed on.’ He joined at the age of 16, as a medic, because it was one of the roles where there was a shortage. Travelling from a village in Northern Ireland to King’s Cross en route to Lincoln for basic training was a daunting journey for a teenager.

Darren’s service included 14 operational tours. ‘Practice management is a natural progression through the medic’s career’, he says. He draws on his RAF experience every day. ‘I sat on many high-profile boards, chairing, leading from the front, and not afraid to make decisions for the benefit of the organisation.’

It gave him a suite of leadership skills. ‘I’ve worked on the shop floor, in all the departments, I know all the issues we face. We are all small cogs in the machine, if one of those cogs isn’t working then the machine doesn’t work.’ That means you need to look after your team. ‘I’ve had people in my office laughing, crying. I feel proud and privileged to have this job.’

His first job interview since joining up was with Millfield, a four-partner dispensing practice with 7,000 patients near York. Darren was only in his 40s when he retired from the RAF but wasn’t ready to end his career. He spotted the job advert and went along solely for interview experience. But it was clear there was ‘a real bond’ between the team. ‘People work really hard for the patients and each other.’

Violence at home

So his professional future looked bright. Unlike his personal life. His second wife was ‘handy with her fists’. But he’d stuck around: ‘I was trying to make my marriage work. You get trapped.’ In the RAF he was ‘highly performing’ but at home ‘I was living in fear’. He made excuses for the bruises; claiming he’d tripped over the dog or injured himself playing football. It wasn’t just the physical violence, but also being made to feel ‘useless’ and isolated from his friends that caused as much pain. And with his social circle whittled down, he felt as if there was no support.

The final incident was when she hit him on the head with a plate, while he was eating, ‘so I was choking.’ The (civilian) police removed his wife but he didn’t want to press charges. ‘I thought, how can you prosecute your wife?’ She came back, but there was ‘no remorse’: ‘Two days later, I felt a bit braver and asked her about it. She said that she’d done nothing to apologise for.’ Darren had to leave the house. When he returned, he found a note saying she’d gone back to Northern Ireland and he’d never see his toddler son again.

Darren’s experience means he’s able to support other survivors. ‘I’m helping one of my friends. He’s no longer in that relationship because of the advice I was able to give, that this [behaviour] will not go away.’

It’s hard for anyone to seek help, but there’s a particular stigma for men, he believes. Violence in relationships in the media or on TV tends to portray female victims. ‘It comes as a greater shock that his happens to a man. I felt weak, I couldn’t tell anyone. But I felt very supported once I’d opened up.’ His advice to anyone going through violence at home is to seek professional help as soon as possible. ‘Irrespective of who you are, no one should be going through that. The bravest and most sensible thing is to seek help.’

Sometimes Darren thinks he recognises the signs in patients at his surgery. But you can’t force someone to open up, he believes. ‘If they want to talk to you they will. I’ve always respected that.’

Bigger vision

Work has always been a refuge. His marriage ended as he was joining Millfield. He brought passion to the surgery, encouraging ‘a frenzy of learning’ to develop skills and support the GPs to offer 20-minute consultations, so the doctors can focus on the most complex patients and avoid running late.

There were two practice nurses and a healthcare assistant (HCA) but now there’s a four-strong nursing team, including an advanced nurse practitioner (ANP). Another practice nurse is training to be an ANP, another qualified as a nurse prescriber. A dispenser is also training to be an HCA.

But it’s not just in the surgery where his ambitions lie — Darren is also operations director of CAVA, the City of York and Vale of York GP Alliance. There are 10 practices, with 94,000 patients in total, who come together ‘to share and contribute ideas, utilise our economies of scale and secure the future of the practices’.

It’s a non-profit company and each practice holds shares. It’s a way for small practices to not only survive, but thrive by working together and combining cost.

But Darren also has ambitions for a major building project, bringing health and social care together in an old hospital site in Easingwold. New housing developments mean the practice has to expand, and it’s a chance to do something much bigger.

Darren got all the stakeholders together to share his vision of having GPs, social care, district nurses, pharmacy, physio, ophthalmology and out-of-hours professionals all in one place. It has been a long slog from his original idea in 2013. ‘I’ve had to be a politician, and got our local MP Kevin Hollingrake involved, plus the town council and county council.’ It’s now the clinical commissioning group’s priority project. And with Darren’s determination, there’s no doubt it will happen.