Health scares and funding fights: a year in Welsh NHS

By Hywel Griffith
BBC Wales health correspondent

Image caption,
Health boards are being asked to slash millions of pounds from their budgets

From one year to the next, many of us take our health for granted - until, out of the blue, something happens that can change your life.

In 2010, that something happened to David Ashdown from Cardiff. when he became one of the first people in South Wales to become seriously ill with Legionnaires' disease.

"My organs started packing up," he explained.

"My liver started packing up, my kidneys, my cardio-vascular system started stopping, so they decided the only thing they could do was to put me into a medically-induced coma."

The 2010 Legionnaires' outbreak became the largest ever recorded in Wales, with 22 people involved in the main Heads of the Valleys outbreak, and ten others - including Mr Ashdown - simultaneously becoming ill with the disease in other areas.

In all, four people were killed by the deadly bacteria, but a definitive source was never found.

After being in a coma for a fortnight, Mr Ashdown eventually pulled through.

But the impact on his life has been remarkable.

"I didn't really know what I wanted to do with my life, this made me decide to change things," he reflected. 

Since recovering he has decided to give up his job, marry his partner and plans to leave south Wales.

"We've decided to sell up and move to Cornwall or Devon - and to live our lives," he said.

Major outbreaks of disease are always a challenge for the health service, but 2010 has been a particularly difficult year, with two bouts of freezing weather putting huge pressure on hospital beds and frontline staff.

Health funding

But perhaps the freeze on public funding has been the biggest challenge facing the health service.

Each health board has been tasked with cutting their costs and saving millions of pounds a month - not just in 2010, but for several years to come.

"We are seeing something that is genuinely unprecedented," argued Prof Marcus Longley, from the Welsh Institute for Health and Social Care.

"We have never seen this sort of financial pressure lasting for three or more years. There aren't any examples of healthcare systems that that have had to save this amount of money in this amount of time."

It is not just politicians who have been pulled into the argument over spending and reforming healthcare.

The prospect of hospital wards closing and services being moved has inspired a new wave of campaigners to become involved in the debate.

Lynette Spragg from Barry, Vale of Glamorgan, decided to start her own Facebook campaign group when she heard of plans to close the midwife-led maternity unit at her local hospital and move services to Cardiff.

"We had about a hundred members in the first few days. Then I found there was another group on there started by somebody else, so we joined forces - then it just sort of spiralled," she explained.

Having never been part of a protest group or campaign before, she found herself at the centre of a movement supported by hundreds of parents and patients across Wales.

"If you want to change something you have to get up and do something," she said.

"I wanted to be the one who tried to do something and see if anyone else cared a much as I did - and they did."

The campaigners will find out the results of a consultation by Cardiff and Vale University Health Board in the new year.

2011 should also bring the results of several service reviews in north Wales, which sparked concerns about patients having to travel further for treatment in the future.

As the Welsh assembly election looms in May, the debate over how best to run the NHS looks set to intensify through the year.

More on this story