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The 1980s rebirth of Mildmay Mission Hospital

After the 1982 closure of Mildmay by the NHS, it was eventually reopened as a voluntary charitable hospital, with a focus on providing care for people with HIV/AIDS.

Peter Frymann, who joined the Board of Mildmay at that time, gives us his recollections, which detail the process by which the reopening of the hospital was enabled.

"I'm going to pick up from the book by Derek Taylor Thompson, The Birth and Rebirth of a Unique Hospital, at paragraph 51, which is where I came became involved.

In April 1984 Helen Taylor Thompson contacted me to see if I would be interested in getting involved with Mildmay with a view to preparing a business plan or feasibility study for the Mildmay Mission Hospital as a voluntary charitable Hospital. This I did, and this document was indeed put to Norman Fowler, Secretary of State for Health.

What impressed him more than anything, was the fact that in the 1948 National Health Services Act, there was a stipulation that the Minister of Health or his successor was responsible for maintaining the denominational nature of hospitals where that was appropriate. Mildmay was one of six hospitals, covered by this provision, and it was pointed out very strongly to Norman Fowler, that closing a hospital was definitely not maintaining its denominational nature. The Hospital Advisory Council, in that sense, offered to do the job for him if he would grant a lease at a peppercorn rent to the HAC to reopen the hospital. Those were the legal grounds on which the hospital was reopened.

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One of the great heroes of the hospital, mentioned in the book, is actually Dr Kenneth Buxton. He was chairman of the League of friends, having been a medical director at the hospital. He it was who persuaded the League of friends in 1984 that without the hospital in operation the raison d’etre of the nursing home had gone. Accordingly, the only way to support the hospital they were all committed to was to close the nursing home, to sell it and donate the proceeds back to the hospital.

It was that donation of that £300,000 that gave the hospital reserves, which enabled it to sign the contract for the redevelopment of the ward for caring for people with AIDS. The contract might have been £300,000 but the cost worked out at £600,000. In part, the increase was down to the developing level of knowledge in the Local Authority and their changing requirements.

Later, Helen Taylor Thompson asked me whether, if we'd known in advance it would cost so much, we would have signed the contract. I replied that it was a matter of faith that we did sign that contract. I also pointed out that if we hadn't signed the contract we would almost certainly have lost the hospital because we have not been able to open, providing services that agreed with the DHS strategy and priorities. That was one of the terms of the lease that we should work with the DHA to complement them or not compete with them.

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Diana, Princess of Wales, on one of her many visits,

chats with a group of Mildmay HIV nurses

I remember in 1984 we had lots of meetings with the local community and representatives of it, to assess the support locally for the Mildmay. Indeed, there was a lot of support. A lot of people said that even though they are a  Christian hospital, they would not push their Christianity, but it was the love that came through.

There was a lot of support locally, provided in the form of pubs that collected change to donate to Mildmay. One of the local businesses, which supplied leather goods, offered to provide a jacket or something if a patient needed it. And we had one AIDS patient, a young lady who had been a drug addict who desperately needed some clothes, and she was absolutely thrilled to be given a superb leather jacket from this company (whose name I can't remember).

One of the most useful features of the hospital in the early days was the roof garden; because so many people with AIDS enjoyed working with the plants - because they were working with something to do with life.

I remember that as a board, we decided that if we didn't know enough about AIDS, we would organise a time when, board members and one or two other volunteers could meet with one or two patients, just to discuss their experience of living with AIDS and living within Mildmay. The person we spoke to said that the day he was diagnosed with AIDS was one of the most liberating days in his life because it meant he knew that he was going to die and it meant that he focused on what was important in his life. So often we can go through life, too busy to think about what's important, But he said that they made him realise what was important and made him free to pursue the important things in life and not the fripperies.

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Spencer House Family Care Centre in Austin Street

Other people who were involved at the hospital in the 1980s included David Brownnutt, who was pastor of the Free Church next to the hospital, the Reverend Eddie Stride, who was the vicar of Shoreditch parish church.

In paragraph 92 in his book, Derek Taylor Thompson talks about the gathering in Buxton Hall when Bishop Maurice Wood gave an address at the dedication service. One of the comments he made about AIDS was seeing it as the 20th century equivalent of leprosy in the Bible, in terms of people's attitude to sufferers.

It's also interesting to note that, whilst Mildmay was closed because the NHS said there was no place within the current NHS for a unit the size of Mildmay, within 10 years it was cited in Hansard, as the model of care for people with AIDS in the UK. That's resurrection.

In the late 1980s the Hospital Advisory Council in whatever name you want to call it used to meet once a month to conduct the appropriate business. In the early years, we would take something like three hours. And as I had a full-time job. I said to Helen Taylor Thompson that this was just becoming unacceptable. In 1989 I started working for a training organisation and I borrowed two training videos called “Meetings, Bloody Meetings” and “More Bloody Meetings”. When we implemented some of the techniques, we found that we were conducting far more business in little more than an hour per month. That was a real blessing, and it meant that the meetings became much more professional and business-like and the business of the hospital was well conducted.

I was involved throughout the Centenary Appeal and the building of the new unit designed to care for mothers and children. It is interesting to note that one of the first patients was a man in his 20’s and his mother, who came to stay with him. Not quite what everybody expected, but the hospital has always catered for the unexpected.

During my time with Mildmay, its Christian ethos and heritage were always very strong. The faith was never aggressively pushed to patients and visitors, but it was always there when questions were asked by patients. Many did ask those questions and found a faith (and peace within themselves and with others) before they died. One early patient with AIDS was so ill on arrival that Dr Veronica Moss wondered how they were still alive. A few days after arrival, they spent time with the Chaplaincy Team and made their peace with God and died a few days later.

My involvement with Mildmay came to an end in 1997 when I moved to Zambia on a three-year contract. It meant that I was unable to attend the opening of the Mildmay unit in Uganda, but I can certainly look back with a lot of pride and satisfaction. The fact that we took Mildmay from being a defunct and dead hospital to being a world leader in the care of people with HIV/AIDS and in research for healthcare for people with AIDS, with units both in the developed and the developing world, remains an enormous source of satisfaction to me personally."

Peter D Frymann

September 2021

Artwork by an unknown daycare patient

Artwork by one of our daycare patients