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Wednesday, July 1, 1998 Published at 17:45 GMT 18:45 UK

The first NHS patient

Sylvia Diggory and Nye Bevan at the launch of the NHS in 1948

The very first patient of the National Health Service (NHS) is still fighting fit and ready to champion the health care system that cured her half a century ago.

Sylvia: Aneurin Bevan was "a giant".
Sylvia Diggory was just 13-years-old when she got to shake Health Secretary Aneurin Bevan's hand as he launched his masterplan from her bedside in 1948.

Today, Mrs Diggory says of the NHS: "It's fantastic - it's an incredible structure. When you really think about it there is no one else in the world who has anything to come up to it."

The important visitor

Suffering from acute nephritis, a potentially fatal liver condition, the teenage Sylvia had already been in Park Hospital at Trafford in Manchester for a few weeks when she noticed the hospital was being readied for an important guest.

The day was July 5, 1948, and the visitor turned out to be the health minister Anuerin Bevan. He had selected the northern hospital as the venue to officially launch his new National Health Service.

[ image: Sylvia Diggory in 1998]
Sylvia Diggory in 1998
The first moment Sylvia knew she would be meeting Mr Bevan was when he walked up to her bed and shook her hand. He asked her if she knew that it was an historical occasion. Sylvia replied she understood it was a very important day.

"I had ear-wigged at adults' conversations and I knew this was a great change that was coming about and that most people could hardly believe this was happening.

"You know, it was such a stride forward, not a step forward in social structure, that most people were really in a daze about it," she said.

'Larger than life'

Mr Bevan was a great hit with everyone at the hospital, according to Sylvia.

"He was charismatic and larger than life, very charming and articulate, with the most attractive voice with a Welsh lilt. In no time at all he had everyone in the hospital like a gigantic fan club."

"The higher echelons of the medical world and the establishment were on the whole agin' the poor man, but it didn't stop him, so he must have been a giant," she said.

Before the NHS existed, many patients had to pay to stay in hospital and the bills often meant a patient's family could remain in debt for many years. Even at her tender age Sylvia knew her parents would be very happy not to have to pay for her treatment in hospital, which in the end lasted several months.

The 'incredible structure'

Sylvia: "Attitudes have changed".
Sylvia now lives in retirement with her husband in North Yorkshire. She is a little bemused at her popularity each NHS anniversary. "After all, it's not like I've split the atom, or anything," she said. Remarkably she has hardly had a day's illness since she left hospital in 1948. "I never knew who my GP was until about three years ago," she said.

But Mrs Diggory has always fiercely defended the public health care system that catapulted her into the limelight. She believes that those who criticise the NHS have lost touch with its main priorities.

"There are two four letter words that carry a lot, that's 'want' and 'need' and they really are a mile apart and I think this is one of the difficulties. It's not what people 'need' anymore, it's what they 'want' and expect," she said.

To celebrate the anniversary, Sylvia intends to return to the hospital she stayed in all those years ago for a special reception. She has become something of an institution at Trafford General, as it is now known, and even has her own plaque on the wall.

"With a bit of luck, we'll be meeting up with Frank Dobson, in whose hands it (the NHS) is mainly at the moment. I am looking forward to that and meeting up with old friends and other people they have managed to drag out of the woodwork, just like they've dragged me," she laughed.

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In this section

The NHS: 'One of the greatest achievements in history'

Making Britain better

True to its principles?

'Patients broke down my door'

Handle with care

Five decades into the future

Aneurin Bevan - Labour's lost leader

The cost of being healthy

All in the mind: mental health evolves

The health of the nation

The first NHS patient

A career of caring

Towards 2048