New children’s hospital could serve as campaigner’s legacy
HEART LINK CHARITY FOUNDER GILL WAS ON FRONTLINE OF EFFORTS TO SAVE SERVICES
THE widower of the co-founder of charity Heart Link hopes Leicester’s new children’s hospital will serve as a tribute to his late wife’s campaigning efforts.
The hospital will be home to the East Midlands Congenital Heart Centre, which Geoff Smart and his wife, Gill, fought so hard with others to save.
The heart centre, currently at Glenfield Hospital, was threatened with closure but was saved in 2018 after an impassioned campaign.
On the frontline were Geoff and Gill, who founded the Heart Link Children’s Charity in 1981.
Gill died at Loros in June after a cancer battle. She was 74.
The charity made headlines earlier this month with £170,000 donation towards the ongoing Leicester Children’s Hospital project.
Over the years, the couple’s efforts have raised millions of pounds to support families of babies and children with heart defects.
Geoff, who was married to Gill for 55 years, said: “Gill was Heart Link. She was the treasurer officially, but she was way more than that.
“I’m chairman but she was a bit of everything, it revolved around her.
“Even just before she died she asked me if I’d carry on as treasurer, she was thinking about the charity right until the end. She was that dedicated.”
It was the couple’s daughter, Amanda, who inspired them to start Heart Link in 1981.
Amanda, 44, wife to Richard and mum to nine-year-old Lexi, died in December 2018 after a stroke.
However, at just two days old, she was diagnosed with a heart problem by doctors at the Groby Road Hospital.
After spending many hours and long nights at their daughter’s bedside, the couple, along with staff at the unit, decided to fund-raise for a kettle so parents could have a cup of tea.
Their next target was rather more ambitious, raising £15,000 to build an extension to house a parents’ room.
They smashed that target and went on to raise millions of pounds for their cause.
Geoff said: “Gill wanted parents and families to have the support Heart Link provided, as well as help fund medical equipment that saved countless lives.
“I remember she was on the ward one day and the staff told her about a
couple who hadn’t left their baby’s room for 24 hours,.
“She went in, spoke to them and sent them off for a cup of tea while she sat with the baby.
“She knew what it was like to be them, she never shied away from speaking to people, however difficult a conversation might be, she knew how important a listening ear was.
“She loved the kids, she loved the little babies, she knew how precious they all were.”
As it grew, the charity took over the couple’s life.
They sold their newsagents and Gill became a clerk on the wards where the patients Heart Link supported were treated.
Gill’s role was more than just administrative duties, with her often being called on by staff to provide emotional support and offer her experienced advice to families.
“Heart Link was a huge commitment but a very important and enjoyable one,” Geoff said. “When ECMO (a specialist unit at Glenfield) first came, the surgeon Gill and a number of others had worked with to bring it to Leicester, called her up at one o’clock in the morning to tell her the first patient was on their way to be treated – she got out of bed and went straight down there.
“She had to be there for it, it was so important to her.”
Not long after Gill’s death, Geoff suffered a stroke.
He is now recovering at home and says he is feeling much better.
“It’s been a difficult year, but it has been for everybody,” he said.
“Perhaps the hardest thing is not being able to go to the wards twice a week like we did to just go and speak to parents and families of children receiving treatment, not being able to be there for them.
“It’s terribly hard, devastating. I miss her all the time.”