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Professor Jane in Retirement

The word ‘retirement’ is simply not in her vocabulary. She still travels, sometimes alone, at others with one of her grandchildren. She goes to “lovely places and funny places” lecturing about her sub-specialty of cardiology. She loves to share and teach. Her knowledge and experience are now vast. She is Emeritus Professor of Cardiology at Imperial College, London, having been a consultant cardiologist on the staff at the Royal Brompton and originally The National Heart Hospital. Professor Somerville is acknowledged world wide as a pioneer for the best care of those who grow up with congenital heart disease – GUCHs, (Grown Ups with Congenital Heart defects), she calls them; the adults and adolescents whose lives have been saved, mostly by cardiac surgery, now by other means. What is she doing in Malta? ‘I was looking for a flat in the sun.

I love the Mediterranean. I adore the sun and one day, a friend said: “Why don’t you look at Malta?” – having looked at all the other bordering countries. I fell in love with Malta, and decided this was the place to stay, on and off, in the winter months. It had everything and they spoke English, an asset, I being a very bad linguist. I was also enchanted by the people, very Mediterranean, understanding the English way of life, being influenced by it and having their own strange culture, beautiful buildings, sunshine. Lovely people so here I thought would be perfect for my vintage years.’ She comes to Malta around once a month to hold a specialty clinic at Mater Dei. ‘I was welcomed and encouraged to work and develop this service in Malta. My colleagues all felt it was necessary and had not the expertise to deal with the complications that occur in this complex group of patients – the GUCHs. Together we have built a very good service and Ithink itis one ofthe bestin the Mediterranean. It has been one of the activities of which I am proud that I have done in my professional life.’ She says that the change in outcome where congenital heart disease is concerned, is amazing. ‘Now even the most severe lesions can be operated upon but they need long term care.’ What influenced her to reach such heights? The strongest influence was her mother who untypically for the age was a career woman. ‘Mother taught me to be independent,to earn my own money and was a most strong role model having been a very successful journalist herself and innovator as she was one of the first twenty to start the Women’s Army during World War II in France. She won a scholarship to go to Bedford College (London University) where she read Anglo-Saxon and Mathematics. She worked for Vogue and was responsible for collecting copy from Aldous Huxley who dedicated Crome Yellow to her and together they wrote The Gioconda Smile.’ Another important influence was her early schooling. During war time, when she was a child, she was sent out of London with her older cousin, to a boys’ private preparatory school near the beautiful Italian-made village of Portmeirion in North Wales. She believes this experience at a boys’ school, where there were 70 boys and a dormitory of six girls, was the perfect training for a future career, within the male dominated medical profession. Jane chose to study medicine because she became fascinated reading old medical books when she stayed with her aunt, a physiotherapist, during the holidays. ‘By the time I was fourteen, I had decided that I was going to do medicine. Few women were admitted to British medical schools at the time I went, actually 9 percent stipulated by the government had to be female – now it is at least 60 per cent.’ She secured a place at Guy’s Hospital. Professor Somerville qualified in 1954/55 and was let loose on the public when she was 21. She was to become a trailblazer. She met Walter Somerville, her husband to be, also an eminent cardiologist, when she was 16, still at school. Walter was then 36. ‘I thought he was fascinating. I thought he was amazing but he was busy taking the girl next door out. We met again in my final year at Guy’s Hospital.’ Walter was Irish, a Roman Catholic, and devastatingly handsome with “matinee idol looks”; indeed, he had been recruited by Metro-GoldwynMeyer when he was demobbed from the American army in New York, waiting to return to England to practise medicine. He became a consultant in the London system. ‘We went out regularly; he encouraged me to get on with my career. He didn’t want a housekeeper for a wife. Remember that most men at the time did not want their women to work. My rule started with ‘never iron a shirt’ and I made this clear soon after our marriage having burnt a shirt by plonking the hot iron on it and burning the sleeve, so that never happened again.’ How did she manage such a high flying and demanding career with having a family, three boys and a girl, a source of intense pleasure? What was her work-life balance like? ‘Disordered. I ran around like a baby steam engine, crisis management almost every day and when I got home, I was badtempered, hungry and tired. But I had the ability to delegate, purged my mind of anything that wasn’t medicine when I was at work. I didn’t have much social life but Walter didn’t want it. I had an amazing Irish housekeeper called Maggie Conlon who passed away recently.’ Professor Somerville was briefly a cardiac surgeon at Guy’s. ‘Irealised that whateverthey were doing, if the children did survive, there was still a lot of abnormality left in their heart. Forty years ago, 9 out of 10 died in childhood. Now 8 out of 10 live. So, even then I was worried as to what would happen to these patients. Surgeons thought they had finished but surgeons leave a lot of abnormality behind: that thought came to my head when I was coming back from a meeting in Great Ormond Street where they were talking about adolescents and young adults with a problem. I realised they had no idea what they were talking about. I then decided that’s what I was going to do. I was much supported by Richard Bonham Carter who sent his adolescent patients to me at The Heart Hospital where, with considerable difficulties, I established my own clinic, thanks to a very generous donor who believed in me and with the help of Walter. This all took place in 1972.’ Professor Somerville was having trouble getting all the advances to do with congenital heart disease, surgical and medical, into congresses. ‘We were not getting a chance to discuss matters. So, one day, in the bath (where else?) I had a ‘Eureka’ moment and decided that we had to have our own world congress of paediatric cardiology.’ The first congress took place in 1980 inWembley.

Some 1,300 delegates turned up from all over the world, mostly recruited by Professor Somerville herself during her travels to conferences. Thus the World Congress of Paediatric Cardiology was born and is still going strong. What about the local Malta scene in Cardiology? “Well, there is a lot of diabetes, a lot of heart disease. It is partly genetic but it is also due to awful eating habits and lack of exercise. Congenital heart disease is only a small part of what cardiology has to do.” I will not list all the accolades she received and goes on receiving worldwide. There simply isn’t the space. Apart from anything else there is The Somerville Foundation which helps children and adults with congenital heart disease and which was named after her. Tanned and well-groomed, off she went to have a bath with Floris’ rose geranium essence and listen to Jessye Norman, a friend, singing Carmen, one of her favourites. She likes strong, romantic music. If you want a truly inspiring woman, great fun, who has achieved a good deal in her life (despite the naughty boys) – that is Jane Somerville in retirement, well semi-retirement perhaps. ‘I have enjoyed life to the full. I am still open to all new ideas and the changing world. I am always hungry for many different things.’ When I suggest that her contribution has been vast, she simply replies: ‘I think I made a difference to the specialisation. People needed to realise that they had to look after people with congenital heart disease when they grew up.’ She adds: ‘Patients are my passion. I feel very sorry that they were born that way. I am also proud of my lovely family. Yes, I made a few contributions that I am very proud and pleased with.’ Will she keep on returning to Malta, even when she will eventually retire? ‘I love Malta, it is part of my soul now and even when I stop doing the GUCH clinic, I will keep on coming.’


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