In Memory of
1929 – 2018
A Founder of CS Disabled Holidays Ltd
Once, people suffering from severe respiratory disability were fated to spend decades, maybe a lifetime in hospital. Now many thousands live as normal a life as possible at home. Dr. Geoffrey Spencer, a trailblazing and courageous anaesthetist, was more responsible than anyone for bringing about this liberating change.
A pioneer of intensive care in the 1960s, he moved on to break new ground in rehabilitating people dependent on artificial ventilation, eventually establishing the Lane Fox Unit at London’s St Thomas’ hospital, which now supports some 1,700 such patients in their own homes and has inspired similar services elsewhere.
Spencer – who was awarded the OBE in 1981 for services to disabled people – was dedicated to giving his highly-dependent patients the chance to get as much out of life as they could, routinely going far beyond what would normally be thought possible in their circumstances. Unusually ready to take risks while maintaining scrupulously high standards and seemingly incapable of taking ‘no’ for an answer, he transformed apparently hopelessly blighted lives. In retirement he ran a charity to provide holidays for the severely disabled.
Born in 1929 – the only child of Kelvin Spencer, a former Chief Scientist at the Ministry of Power, and Phoebe Wills – he initially lived with his mother and grandmother, his father not being over-fond of small children. He attended Bedales School between 1939 and 1948, finishing as head boy, and was posted to an army hospital in Colchester during national service, developing an empathy for employees at all levels in health care that was to persist throughout his career.
His student days at St Thomas’s were largely spent playing the flute and running an orchestra. Nevertheless he qualified and became an anaesthetist at St Thomas’, and was then asked to plan and oversee the construction of its intensive care unit, which opened in 1966. Two years later he founded and ran a pioneering facility, initially dedicated to polio patients, the Phipps Respiratory Unit at the South Western Hospital in Stockwell. This later evolved into the Lane Fox Unit at St Thomas’ after he helped his patients to raise £1m to build an equip it.
When he started the Phipps unit the average length of time that the patients had so far spent in hospital was 15 years, an especially devastating statistic given that so many polio victims were young. Both there and at Lane Fox, Spencer increasingly concentrated on aiming to rehabilitate them and get them out of the wards. This was achieved by including physiotherapists, occupational therapists, dieticians, rehabilitation consultants, social workers – and even an art therapist – as well as being able to draw on all St Thomas’ specialist medical expertise.
Fascinated all his life with mechanics and machines, he established ventilation facilities in patients’ homes with a team of engineers who would visit to maintain them. This enabled them to live relatively normal family lives, while allowing them to be readmitted to the unit for treatment whenever they needed.
Not satisfied with all this he started Refresh, a charity, in the 1970s with a quadriplegic polio patient and friend, Robin Cavendish. This built a fully equipped care home at Netley, on Southampton Water to give severely respiratory disabled patients holidays in beautiful, but medically secure surroundings. He ran the charity for as long as he could, after retiring from hospital. Eventually Refresh was combined with two other charities to become CS Disabled Holidays, providing funding to allow severely disabled people and their careers to be able to take holiday breaks.
In all this he was greatly supported by his wife, Felicity (née Reynolds), also an anaesthetist at St Thomas’ who also worked with Refresh on retirement; they married in 1968 and had a daughter and a son.
In his last years he became blind, underwent two heart attacks and two mini-strokes, and developed dementia. It was a sad and frustrating final chapter for someone who had done so much to help others with devastating illnesses, and for whom – in the words of Prof Fred Heatley, with whom he introduced an operation from China to straighten polio patients’ knees – “he embodied all that it means to be a doctor”.
Geoffrey Spencer, disability pioneer, was born on 5th June, 1929. He died of vascular dementia on September 12th, 2018, aged 89.