In the month that the blockbuster Netflix series The Crown won a Golden Globe for Best TV Series – Drama, one of the original medical team responsible for the operation on King George VI in 1951 celebrates her 100th birthday at a Sussex retirement home.
Sarah Minter enjoyed a remarkable career in nursing and in her most senior role of Principal Nursing Officer regularly received invitations to functions, dinners and receptions from Buckingham Palace, the Houses of Parliament and Prime Ministers - Winston Churchill, Harold Wilson, Clement Atlee and Edward Heath.
Miss Minter was born in Scotland, educated near Cheltenham and began her nursing training at the Westminster Hospital in London. She learnt midwifery at Queen Charlotte’s Hospital and progressed to the position of Sister. During the war she was offered the Theatre Sister position in Westminster Hospital.
Eventually she gained promotion to Theatre Superintendent for the Westminster Group of Hospitals, including the Westminster, the Westminster Children’s, the Gordon, All Saints, Queen Mary’s Roehampton, St. John’s Battersea Geriatric Hospital and the Putney Hospital.
With nine theatres to look after she set about standardising everything so that, wherever a surgeon went, he could perform operations confident in the knowledge that he had the same equipment, procedures and assistants.
But it was that fateful day in September 1951 that Miss Minter most clearly remembers. She was about to go on holiday when Clement Price Thomas (later Sir), a renowned Chest Surgeon, came into her office.
After carefully closing the door, he informed her that he had to perform a major chest operation on King George VI and, at the Palace’s insistence, the operation would take place at Buckingham Palace. Miss Minter was tasked with coordinating the equipment and nursing team that would be needed.
From sterilising to lighting apparatus, she selected what equipment she could from the Westminster’s surgical theatres, including the latest operating table, in order to create a replica theatre inside the Palace.
She also had to ensure that enough equipment remained in the hospital for normal operations to take place.
The King’s operation began around 10am on the September 23, 1951 and Miss Minter remembers the thrill of looking out at the crowds from a window in the Palace, as a press notice about the operation was posted to the gates. After the operation the King returned to his own bedroom where he slowly recovered from the procedure. As was customary at the time, the patient, even though he was King, was never told he had cancer.
Miss Minter has many special and personal memories of the Royal family from that time and still keeps the letters from one of her nurses who temporarily lived at the Palace in order to nurse the King after his operation. Although King George recovered from the surgery to remove one lung, he died five months later in February 1952.
Miss Minter received a signed photograph of the King and Queen, thanking her for her part in the procedure. It has pride of place in her room at Whitegates Retirement Home. Her name is also listed with the other surgical team members on a stained glass window commemorating King George VI, in the chapel of Westminster Hospital.
In 1956 Miss Minter was given a scholarship and travelled to America where she did a Masters Degree course at Boston University. She also visited other hospitals in Washington, New York, and Toronto where she observed new systems and procedures that she took back to Westminster.
During her busy and distinguished career Miss Minter even found time to write a short book, ‘Theatre Techniques for Nurses’. She eventually retired in 1977, aged 60.
During her retirement Miss Minter did voluntary work at a Surrey hospital, but also found time to enjoy WI meetings, current affairs, gardening and Continental holidays.
With her elder sister, she eventually moved into Whitegates Retirement Home in Westfield where she lived until her sister died.
At this point she decided to move back into the community, moving to the Northern Hotel at Bexhill at the grand age of 96. While in Bexhill, Miss Minter was personally interviewed by the Curator of Medicine from the Science Museum about her memories of King George VI’s operation, as the museum were setting up a display in their ‘Health Matters Gallery’ using the very operating table that she had procured for the Kings’ surgery at the Palace.
Miss Minter returned to Whitegates, when she felt she needed more daily assistance, in the summer of 2015, and it is at Whitegates that she will be celebrating her 100th birthday with a special afternoon party on January 16 with close friends and the staff.
At a time when the NHS and hospitals in particular are reported to be in crisis, Miss Minter says that the following words, that formed part of a 1992 address in Westminster Abbey, are as true now as they ever were: “At the heart of every good hospital there ought to be a sense of home and hospitality - and that will have to do with the quality of caring and listening; of giving attention by one person to another, which, at its highest, is best described by the word LOVE. However brilliant the technology, nothing can replace the value of the one to one relationship with the patient, that tradition of loving care which sees each single patient as a complex, vulnerable human being who must be listened to, given proper attention and affirmed.”
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