A personal History of SURE by Founder Barrie Palmer
In 1997 a good friend of mine, Howard Wander, who was well know in the town for his performances with The Wayfarers Pantomime and Taunton Thespians, which is where we met and indeed performed together many times, was diagnosed with thyroid cancer and had to endure the daily trip to the Bristol Oncology Centre for his radiotherapy treatment. On a number of occasions, on my days off from the Police I took him on that journey and thought what a ludicrous situation and why couldn’t we have a unit in Taunton. I made a great deal of enquiries with the Somerset and Regional Health Authorities and researched other Oncology Centres in the Country and what was required. I was told in no uncertain terms (and still have the letter) that there were not enough people travelling to Bristol to warrant a unit in Somerset, also that it would not be possible to staff such a centre but if I wanted to raise money then send it to Bristol! I suggested that if it was advertised throughout the UK, did they not think that professionals from Liverpool, Glasgow, London etc might like to come and work in the County town of Somerset, perhaps I’m a bit too logical for the NHS!
I spoke to the various political parties in the Taunton area including the then MP, Jackie Ballard but no one wanted to know, until Adrian Flook, who as the Prospective Parliamentary Candidate for the Conservatives really got hold of my idea. He had lost some very close relatives to Cancer. Within 10 days of Adrian getting involved I had the lead clinician for cancer services in Somerset Wiltshire and Dorset come to my house. He told me that the feeling was definitely to extend Bristol or Bath but that Taunton would be an ideal site and if I wanted to get it off the ground then give the NHS bad publicity as they hated that. I went on BBC TV, on radio and did articles for the press. By this time it was 2000.
I officially launched the campaign in September 2000 with a Variety show I put together and produced, entitled ‘Absent Friends’ with the great help from Queens College, Taunton and Adrian Flook. The performers were members of the various amateur societies and professional standup comedians etc. It was called Absent Friends because Howard had died as had two other friends, Pat Hudson and Ian Richie. In that one night we raised £5,136. Over four years I was the one who travelled around the County getting the initial word out there, giving talks, contacting all of the Funeral Directors, receiving cheques, etc No expenses were ever taken. Cynthia Law became a helper very early on as did Vanessa. Jeff Gale worked tirelessly with his wife visiting supermarkets making collections, arranging ‘do’s at Norton Fitzwarren etc. Eric joined in late 2003, initially as a committee member then later as treasurer. His wife asked me if Eric could take on more work as he suffered from SAD during the winter months and became very depressed, giving him more to do in SURE would keep him busy and take his mind off things.
My original appeal was for 2.5 Million pounds to provide the building and two linear accelerators (Radiotherapy machines), not just £450,000 for a CT simulator. But once the idea of the centre became a reality, the funders were obviously responsible for the building and the linacs. I suggested that it would be a good idea to allow for expansion by constructing a third bunker for a future Linac whilst they were digging out for two just a few more lorry loads of concrete. No they said we won’t need a third for 10 years, but I said wouldn’t it be a good idea to save time, money and disruption later to do it then. Eventually after months, they agreed. Before the Beacon Centre opened in 2009 the third Linac had been ordered and we now need a fourth!
It was in March 2001 that all of a sudden the NHS stated that they thought that Musgrove would be an ideal place for an oncology centre, which would be a satellite unit of the Bristol Centre. Once the NHS had been convinced, I had several meetings with members of the Trust and in particular with the Director of Strategic Planning, to put the thoughts of ordinary people into the building and attended presentations of the prospective funders under the PFI. This took another couple of years and £1.7 Million, but the original preferred bidder dropped out and under PFI rules it all had to be-advertised throughout Europe to find another provider. Eventually one was found and the plans started to take shape.
In early 2006 having been working away on and off with the RSC for 18 months, I returned home to find that nothing much had happened and ascertained that the Trust were waiting to get all 43 contracts to be signed at the same time and basically in the same room. That was never going to happen! I arranged, through Mark Formosa, The then Parliamentary Candidate for the Conservatives for Andrew Lansley, the then Shadow Health Secretary to come to the hospital and meet with the Chief Executive. (Even though originally the hospital had said that Andrew Lansley couldn’t come ) it wasn’t until I threatened to have the meeting in the car park where the unit was planned to be built and have the press attend that they agreed! (in fact we did have our photo taken there and it went into the Gazette). Mr Lansley pulled out all the stops and spoke to his opposite number Patricia Hewitt, the Health Secretary and all of a sudden things moved along very quickly and all the contracts were signed!
I had to convince the NHS bosses to take SURE seriously and allow us to fund certain equipment. They even said that there would not be any simulation carried out at Musgrove and that patients could still travel to Bristol for this to be done. That’s when I decided that we should purchase the CT Simulator.
I ensured that when I was running the Charity everyone who donated any money received a handwritten letter from me thanking them. I insisted that Eric continue this. He later changed it to a type written letter. Eric’s son in law and a friend of mine, Charlie, kindly completed all of the paperwork for us to fully gain Charitable status as that was basically his job within Somerset County Council.
Joan Greedy of Creech St Michael, was the lady who came up with the idea of collecting the 5p coins and this was then taken on by the committee and was run by Jack and Cynthia Law until they moved to Cornwall and Roy Hole.
It was Molly Eastwood from Norton Fitzwarren who was responsible for arranging for the Somerset County Gazette to take on SURE as one of it’s successful Charities. Eric and Roy were the people who sent all the information into the Gazette.
The whole committee, trustees and other funders work tirelessly. Roy Hole became involved when his wife who was suffering from cancer did a micro light flight to raise money for SURE even though she was scared of flying and heights. Sadly she died soon afterwards. When she died Roy became a committee member and has continued to work extremely hard and deputised for me at Committee meetings when I couldn’t make it.