On the birthday of the NHS, meet the man that built our hospital

When Bob Yearby arrived in Bury St Edmunds some 46 years ago to build an NHS hospital, he had no idea that one day he’d return there to receive care himself.

Bob, 87, was the site architect for the original build of West Suffolk Hospital back in 1972. And today, on the 70th birthday of the NHS, he’s here at the West Suffolk NHS Foundation Trust as a patient.

“I spent around two years on the job, and I was commuting in from London on the train at the time,” says Bob. “Though now I’m a local man as I live in Sudbury, so I’m under the care of one of the hospitals I helped to build!”

As the site architect, it was Bob’s responsibility to make sure everything from clearing land and installing water, sewage, electric and gas systems were done properly.

“It was a big operation,” he says. “In those days it was close to £2.5m to build this site, which was a heck of a lot of money back then. In those days you were doing hospitals for around half a million, so this was a state-of-the-art hospital.”

The hospital was part of the Government’s ‘best buy’ system, which Bob says was essentially a blueprint for a new hospital build: “The template was like a cross, and you just put the wards in like a jigsaw. There were seven or eight hospitals around here that were all of the same design concept. They had the same number of wards, same number of beds – everything. The only modification people really made in the past was the front entrance.

“The main change that was made here was the front car park. Originally that should have been the nurses quarters, and the idea was that we would put the nurses quarters there and have a tunnel coming through into the hospital. The tunnel was for security at night when the staff were going to and from the hospital. But those who know better than me decided they’d change it and put the car park at the front, so we changed it!

“I really did feel so great when it was done. It’s like all jobs – you’re very proud when it’s finished. But, you’ve got to move up and move on to the next job.”

Now, Bob can’t believe how much the site has expanded. “It’s changed a tremendous amount,” he says. “Now the build has gone out over the back, down the sides, there’s labs and a new children’s area. There was nothing like that when we first built it. But all the roof panels are still there, and the ceilings, exactly as I remember them going in. A big truck came in with the ceiling tiles, the beds and everything in between – all of it.”

And it’s Bob’s belief that in the years to come, hospitals are going to change even more: “In another 10 year, 20 years, 30 years, I think hospitals are going to look totally different again.

“What doesn’t change though is the people in the hospital. Whenever I was working on hospital builds and I wanted information or knowledge I always went to staff and said ‘what do you think of this?’ And you would always get the best answers. All you have to do is listen and they’ll tell you what’s right and what’s wrong.”

As the NHS celebrates 70 years of care today, Bob is back at the West Suffolk Hospital as he prepares for an operation. He says: “It feels very weird coming back now. But it’s a wonderful hospital, I think the people and the staff here are just absolutely terrific. I used the hospital about 12 years ago for an operation and now I’m back for another one.

“I’ve always had excellent care here. Even in the early days when we were doing construction work the cafeteria and coffee shops were good and looked after us!”

And Bob’s thought’s on the NHS and why it matters? “Well, the NHS is just a lifesaver all round isn’t it? I mean, a lot of people wouldn’t be alive today if it wasn’t for the NHS. I can remember my mum going to the doctors and having to pay half a crown, but not now.

“Every person makes a difference here though. It doesn’t matter if you’re a surgeon or if you clean the wards – one can’t do without the other. If the cleaner doesn’t do their job properly the surgeon is wasting their time.  It’s one big team.”

The National Health Service turned 70 today (5 July) 2018. The perfect opportunity to celebrate the achievements of one of the nation’s most loved institutions, to appreciate the vital role the service plays in our lives, and to recognise and thank the extraordinary NHS staff – the everyday heroes – who are there to guide, support and care for people, day in, day out.

Follow the West Suffolk NHS Foundation Trust at @WestSuffolkNHS on Twitter, or /WestSuffolkNHS on Facebook, for the latest news and updates on how we’re celebrating.