THE fear once was that the ‘new’ Hexham General Hospital would just be a glorified hotel, a sop to a community campaigning fiercely to preserve what it had.

But step in through the front doors and there’s a reassuring buzz about the £54m sculptural piece of architecture that replaced the old Hexham General’s barrack blocks.

Indeed, it soon becomes apparent there is so much more there than first meets the eye.

Modern matron Gillian Messenger, the most senior nurse at Hexham and Haltwhistle Hospitals, ticks off the services: there’s Ward 2, dedicated to elderly medicine, Ward 4, built around the rehabilitation of elderly stroke victims, a ward dealing with surgical and orthopaedic patients, the maternity unit, an urgent care department, and departments dealing with endoscopy, oncology, X-rays and gynaecology.

And as Gary Robinson, manager of the surgical theatre team makes clear, they are for the most part all very busy.

“The last financial year, we did 4,500 operations,” he said. “Including 452 hip replacements (the national average is 226), 483 knee replacements (the national average is 228) and 966 total join replacements, which includes hips, knees and shoulders.

“Almost a thousand total joint replacements for one hospital – that is going some!”

He also takes pride in the fact they have a ‘block room’ run by anaesthetists qualified to block off pain receptors in limbs for patients who would prefer to stay awake during surgery.

“That didn’t exist when I first arrived here,” said Gary. “Most of the consultants here can do the blocks, but we have some that specialise and they man the block room.”

Their four theatres also play host to general day surgery, for things such as gall bladder removal, hernia repairs and – a recent innovation – minimal access hysterectomies.

Unfortunately the team is having to do an increasing number of operations on skin cancer too. “The demand nowadays is massive,” said Gary. They do breast reconstruction surgery too.

He said: “The change downstairs (from Accident & Emergency) to Urgent Care had a big impact on public perception, but I think generally people don’t realise just how much we do here.”

As both Gillian and Gary confirm, there is a big emphasis on getting patients home the same day.

“Research shows hospital isn’t a good place for patients and we know that,” said Gillian. “The best place for them is their own home environment.”

Here, collaboration comes into its own. The close working relationship with local GPs’ practices and the community nursing teams pays tremendous dividends when it comes to settling patients comfortably back in their own communities.

Clinical lead midwife Julie Hamilton and midwife Gill Brindley are usually awaiting patients coming the other way for their big day.

A baby boy had just been born there that morning, but he’d been sent to the Northumbria Specialist Emergency Care Hospital in Cramlington for tests. “Then he’ll come back here,” said Gill.

Northumbria Healthcare Trust has three midwife-led units – the other two are in Alnwick and Berwick – as well as a high-risk obstetric unit in Cramlington. While Hexham has usually had an average of around 80 births a year, for some reason that dropped to 57 last year.

Gill said: “Because we’re not really busy, we have time to support mums through their labours properly.”

Since April, the support has been beefed up too thanks to the introduction of the new Continuity of Care strategy, a nationwide drive to strengthen the link between mum-to-be and midwife.

The aim is to have baby delivered by the same midwife that has looked after mum throughout her pregnancy. “It gives mums confidence and positivity if they have the same carer and there are better outcomes – it’s a more satisfying experience for both mums and midwives.”

The unit has four delivery rooms, but the most popular one by far is the one with the birthing pool. “Seventy five per cent of mums go in the pool,” said Gill. “Not everyone has their baby in the water, but they welcome it for the relaxation it provides in labour.”

Some women don’t make it into the unit on time, of course. Last week, a baby was born in the car park. “There was a 3am phone call from mum, ‘I’m on my way’. Two minutes later, ‘my waters have broken, I’ve taken my trousers off’.

“A car came hurtling round the corner and I thought ‘ yep, that’s them’. By the time they parked up, she was delivering the baby in the back seat.”

Gill helped mum through the last minute or two, while dad provided light with the torch on his mobile phone.

Meanwhile, Julie, as matron for all three midwife-led units in the trust, splits her time between the Hexham, Alnwick and Berwick sites.

Her role is ostensibly a blend of management, human resources and strategy support for the staff, much as Gillian Messenger is for the nursing teams at Hexham and Haltwhistle Hospitals.

Both are responsible for maintaining protocols and standards. As the latter puts it: “We are in between – we are everybody’s friend, but we can also be seen as critical friends, analysing, maintaining and upholding standards.

“We are also conduits, taking issues from the team forward and feeding information back from management.

“But for me, first and foremost throughout my career, the patient comes first.”

The four people I interviewed talked about the ever-evolving technology and the digital improvements such as e-meds, the digitisation of prescriptions which means they can be accessed from any computer.

Gillian talked about how, today, people entering the medical profession had so many different career routes to choose from. “In the past 10 to 15 years, there has been a much bigger emphasis on educating staff and that applies to everybody from the domestics to the chief executive,” she said.

“It doesn’t matter who you are, the opportunities are there if you want them.”

But it was Gary who spoke for them all when he said: “Staff here are really very proud of what we have in Hexham.”