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Employment

45 years in the NHS: ‘If you don’t love your job, you won’t get nowhere’

When Lee Pearson got a job at the NHS in 1977, aged 18, he never knew it would become his life. This is his story.

When Lee Pearson’s step-mother suggested he apply for a porter’s job at St Mary’s Hospital in London where she worked, back in 1977, he wasn’t too sure. He did like the idea of helping people. But, at the age of 18, he didn’t know if he could cope with transporting dead bodies to the morgue. 

“I asked my two good friends if this was something they would do. They both said: ‘No, you’re mad.’” he recalls. “But then I went home and lay down on my bed. I looked up to the ceiling and I spoke to God. I said: ‘God, if I asked my friends to lend me a fiver, they would lend it to me. But if I asked a second time, they would say: ‘Why don’t you get a job?’ So I went for my interview. They showed me around and I said to myself: ‘I’m going to take this job. And I’m going to keep it’.” 

That was almost 45 years ago. From the day he set foot in St Mary’s until now, Pearson, 63, has been at the beating heart of the NHS. Serving as a porter, domestic worker, receptionist and general assistant, in different London hospitals, and for several years as an ambulance driver, he has watched the health service evolve and grow. He has stuck with it through times of investment and times of crisis, the worst of which has been the pandemic. 

‘I was so young when I started out’ says Lee. Photo: Tarecca Mussabir/NHS Property Services

His long shifts mean he has spent more time in hospitals than anywhere else; but he has enjoyed almost every minute of it. “I was so young when I started,” he says, “so the best thing was working with older people. They taught me a lot, they looked after me. It was like a home from home, and the love I got from everyone kept me there.” 

As the second eldest of seven siblings – and with his older brother in Jamaica – Pearson understood the importance of steady employment as he helped his family stay afloat in difficult times. 

His efforts helped keep the hospitals – St Mary’s, St Charles, Soho Walk-in-Centre, Princess Louise Nursing Home – running smoothly. Today he is employed by NHS Property Services as a general assistant back at St Charles. In his years of uninterrupted service, he has worked in pharmacies, in pathology labs, in A&E; he has kept the sites clear of rubbish, collected prescriptions, specimens and samples; he has transported patients for X-ray and the renal dialysis unit; he has taken and laid out the deceased with dignity for relatives to view.  

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In return, the NHS has given him stability and shaped him to become a man his family is proud of. 

He wasn’t good at school, he says, and was sacked from his first two jobs for poor time-keeping. “But when I got the hospital job, the doors started to open. No college, no university could have taught me what the NHS has taught me. I have learned so much about people. About how there is good and bad in everyone. About how everyone must be treated with the same respect.” 

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Life at the sharp end of the health service has been full of highs and lows. Pearson particularly liked working with children. But they were the source of his toughest moments too. “The worst was when I had to take a child to the mortuary,” he says. “I’d look at them and think: ‘That’s so unfair, that child has not had any life.’” 

Another poignant moment came when his stepmother was in a cancer ward in the hospital he was working in. He knew she was dying and asked the nurse to contact him when it happened so he could personally “put her to rest”. 

“There was another lady who works at the hospital – a friend of mine,” Pearson recalls. “Her mum came in a few weeks after my stepmum. She saw I was looking after her, and that I made sure she was treated well after she passed on. So she said: ‘When my mum passes away, will you look after her too? I don’t want no-one else to touch her but you.’ I said: ‘Yes, I will do that for you.’ And I did. That’s a kind of blessing.” 

Over the course of his career, he has struck up many long-term friendships. One was with Boris Johnson’s mother Charlotte, who died earlier this year. While working as an ambulance driver, he regularly picked her up from her home to take her to clinics. 

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“I got to know her so well, God rest her soul,” he says. “I used to ask her: ‘How is your son doing?’ And she would say: ‘He’s doing good.’ Then one day we were having a chat. He was working with the government by then. She said: ‘You know, my son would make a good prime minister.’ I said to her: ‘Well, if he does become prime minister, please tell him to look after the NHS.’” 

Pearson likes the fact that when Johnson had Covid-19 he was treated in an NHS hospital. And he has a clear message for him now. “I would say to him: ‘Do not privatise the NHS.’ I want it to stay as it is: for the people. That’s what I came into and that’s what I want to leave when I go.” 

Pearson has four children of his own now: Deon, Ashley, Tashanna and Angel. They have given him nine grandchildren with a 10th on the way. In January he will celebrate his 45 years and a few months later he plans to retire. He will miss it, but expects to carry on helping people. 

“If I do get bored outside, I will do something for charity. It won’t be for money,” he says. In the meantime, Tashanna is carrying on his legacy, working – like him – as an NHS receptionist. She is also a shop steward. 

He might write a book about his experiences, too. That would be excellent. After all, it’s men and women like him that keep the NHS functioning. “I have been lucky to love my job, and I have no regrets,” he says. 

“I have seen a lot of people chase money in my time. But when you chase money, money runs away and leaves you. You’ve got to love your job. If you don’t love your job, you won’t get nowhere in life.” 

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine. If you cannot reach your local vendor, you can still click HERE to subscribe to The Big Issue today or give a gift subscription to a friend or family member. You can also purchase one-off issues from The Big Issue Shop or The Big Issue app, available now from the App Store or Google Play.

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