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News that Britain is planning the world's first full face transplant is a wonderful sign of progress...and a dangerous warning of mixed up priorities reckons Ros Dodd.

A team of British doctors is poised to carry out the world's first complete face transplant sometime soon.

On the face of it (no pun intended) this is great news because it demonstrates how far the medical world has come in the past few decades.

Today, the NHS can perform miracles - from giving you an artificial heart to presenting you with the child you longed for, courtesy of increasingly sophisticated IVF procedures.

Yet as we marvel at the advancement of medical science, we should also ask ourselves what is happening in primary care - surely the life blood of the National Health Service. Because if what I've gleaned over the past few weeks is representational, then the NHS is in even worse shape than the media portrays.

My friend Lisa's partner of 17 years Mattdied three weeks ago from pancreatic cancer at the tragically early age of 40. Medical science could not have saved him - pancreatic cancer is one of the most evil, invisible and rapid of killers - but the way he was treated at his local GP surgery was lackadaisical at best and woefully misjudged at worst.

Matt, who was head of science at a Birmingham comprehensive, first went to the doctor a few days after the end of the summer term. He complained of a sensation of a ‘blockage' in his chest which made eating difficult.

Thanks to the Government's ‘enlightened' system of allowing patients to get an appointment on the day they phone up, Matt saw a succession of doctors over a period of eight weeks, during which time he lost three stone in weight and was becoming increasingly fatigued. Not one of them suspected cancer and, instead, put his symptoms down to a stomach ulcer.

Eventually, one doctor had the presence of mind to send Matt for an emergency endoscopy (he'd previously been booked in for a routine one, which involved a wait of up to 14 weeks) and things got moving - but not very fast. The ‘emergency' procedure took two weeks to happen, after which Matt was sent home, despite his request to be admitted as an in-patient because by this stage he was barely able to drink, let alone eat. He was despatched with a prescription for a ‘health fruit drink'.

He was finally admitted to Selly Oak Hospital in Birmingham the next day, following yet another - and by this time, desperate - trip to his GP practice.

Even in hospital, the care-deficit persisted. Cancer was finally diagnosed, but because a weekend intervened, when no senior medics are around, it was left to Matt's Dad to eke out the news from a junior practitioner and relay it to his son.

There are numerous other failings too, which is why Lisa and I - who run a PR company together - are determined to launch a campaign of some kind to try to prevent others being let down by the NHS in the way Matt was. We recognise the health service does wonders in many cases, but while it persists in trying to break new barriers of medical advancement, it cannot be concentrating on what it was set up to do.

It's all very well to be able to perform full face transplants, but if a GP can't spot the signs of cancer when even lay people are becoming suspicious, then something is badly wrong.

Had the diagnosis come sooner, Matt could have had treatment and, therefore, more time. For someone with a less aggressive form of cancer, such shoddy service could mean the difference between life and death.

Lisa and I don't expect our efforts to make much of a difference to a vast organisation driven more by politics than care for people, but we will bring about a change for the better - however small - for Matt's sake and for the sake of all those people whose lives could be saved if the NHS dropped its obsession with trying to run before it can walk.


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