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The unsung heroes that keep Addenbrooke's Hospital moving

By Gemma Gardner

Ken Grant Picture: Keith Heppell
Ken Grant Picture: Keith Heppell

Without them, the hospital would come grinding to a halt. In the first of a new occasional series behind the scenes at Addenbrooke's, GEMMA GARDNER talks to Ken Grant about the role of porters and discovers the myriad of jobs they perform.

‘There isn’t really anything, apart from treating patients, that we don’t get involved in.”

Ken Grant is a troubleshooter, a lynchpin between clinical and non-clinical staff, and the first port of call if there’s a problem.

The 55-year-old is one of scores of hidden heroes without whom the hospital would almost certainly grind to halt.

Ken is shift facilities manager and is responsible for a team of 132 porters. He is one of four people to hold the position at Addenbrooke’s, where he’s worked for 35 years.

“I’ve grown up in the hospital,” he told The Cambridge Independent.

Ken begun working at Addenbrooke’s in June 1981. First as porter, when there were just 22 wards (there are now 52), then a switch board manager, contract manager and porter manager before moving to his current position in 2001.

“We work 24/7, and we do a 12-hour shift pattern, four on and four off.

“We will field the calls where people don’t know who to talk to. We’re the troubleshooters. We’re there for advice.”

Most people will understand a porter to be someone who pushes patients and beds around but at Cambridge University Hospitals Trust, a porter’s remit also includes maintenance, ordering and sourcing medical gases, catering, cleaning, security, trips to the mortuary and even fighting fires.

“One of the biggest things about this job is networking – it’s not what you know, it’s who you know. If you don’t know who to talk to, you’re not going to get the answers to the questions. And we know just about everyone – well, not all 8,000 staff but I know a lot of them! We have to keep building on that because new people start so we tend to go around the departments, pop our head in and people introduce us.”

Porters walk around 11km every day. Busily going about their business in the network of corridors and tunnels under the hospital buildings and roads, Ken and his team won’t turn anyone away.

“You’re relied on, and you know you are. You know that when the clinical team have called you, you’ve got to resolve it because you’re the last port of call,” he said.

“One of our mantras is, we won’t pass it on. We don’t like to say ‘phone somebody else’ because I know they’ve already gone to everyone else,” said Ken, who can access almost every room in the hospital, including the operating theatres.

Some typical calls for Ken can include dealing with a difficult or aggressive individual, sourcing food for a patient who has missed meal time, or ordering gases like oxygen and nitrous oxide.

“I’ve had so many random calls that I don’t know what’s random and what’s not anymore,” Ken laughed.

On an average day, Ken receives around three calls an hour, while he’ll take around 15 calls on a night shift.

Almost every job is rewarding for the manager but retrieving lost teddy bears is one towards the top of the very list.

“The grimmest thing is when things have gone wrong. Things like drains going. That’s the worst job. That is not pleasant,” he said. “It’s getting the right people to deal with the situation.”

Aside from the regular calls, porters are also part of the fire response team. “I have had one fire in a [waste] shoot room. That was scary,” Ken recalled.

The fire response team is trained how to use fire extinguishers and, because of their knowledge of the hospital site, mattress evacuations.

“We’re taught how to wrap someone in a mattress and take them out, and how to take them down the stairs safely,” said Ken as he walked along an underground corridor with artwork painted on the walls by volunteers.

With such responsibilities porters take around three months to familiarise themselves with the hospital, but it takes years to know where everything is.

“We did a little treasure hunt recently for some new supervisors,” Ken said. “The best way to find your way is to get lost.

“We send people out looking for spiral staircases too – and that’s hard because there’s only four in Addenbrooke’s.”

He added: “When I was a young porter, around 19, we got a power cut. The substation ceased to function, all our generators failed, and the place went quiet for 15-20 minutes. I had to find my way down to level one with no lights at all. I didn’t have a torch then – I do now,” he joked.

In the service yard where Addenbrooke’s 220-feet high chimney stands – it was once the tallest freeform concrete structure in the world – Ken explains another part of his remit.

“Waste is another bit that comes under facilities,” he said. “Nearly everything gets burned here.”

The incinerator burns around six to 10 tonnes of waste each day.

“It’s varied. That’s what I love about my job, no two days are the same,” said Ken.


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