Personal Reflections on Mark Smith

I was delighted, but a little apprehensive, when asked by Paul Sly to share my thoughts about Mark, my dear friend, colleague, and one-time boss, as we reach a year since he sadly departed on 21 June 2019. I reflected hard about this request, remembering the times Mark and I had chatted and worked together. He was in all senses of the word, a great man, who I admired and respected from my very first encounter to sadly the last in January 2019. He was an inspirational person and, without doubt, had a major and positive influence on my career path. I’m sure my experiences of Mark will be similar to many others.

I liked the way he tackled challenges, got to the bottom of issues, and made sensible plans. It was always good to know that he was involved in something because the outcome would be workable and realistic. He actively listened, valued different views, and took ownership and responsibility for decisions – a quality not always present in others. To me, Mark was a true leader who gained willing followers.

I first met Mark in the early 1990s at Salisbury District Hospital. Mark was the Directorate Manager of Clinical Support and I was the Senior Chief Scientific Officer in technical charge of Haematology, Blood Transfusion and Immunology. An external service review of Pathology Services was commissioned, and I confess I was apprehensive, but in that time of turmoil and uncertainty, Mark was reassuringly honest, calm and above all, approachable.

We found a way forward and broke new ground by creating a blood sciences laboratory. Out of this I gained the role of Pathology Business Manager and reported directly to Mark. He supported and coached me in my new role. This was the heady days of the internal market in healthcare and we traded the Pathology Service and won new business on Quality and Cost.

At the beginning of 1997, he told me he was leaving the Trust for a new position at the Princess Margaret Hospital Swindon (I think it was to be the Director of Operations). I remember thinking this was a sad loss for Salisbury. Touchingly, he gave me a handwritten letter (which I still have), wishing me well for the future and suggesting we should keep in touch. Little did I know that this connection would last for the following 22 years.

By the end of 2001, I too had left both Salisbury and Pathology to work in London as a Clinical Governance Review Manager for the Commission for Health Improvement. We both attended a conference at the King's Fund in London where afterward we retired to a local bar and caught up and exchanged contact details. Mark again gave me some good advice about my career.

Several years later I was working in Croydon and approaching the end of an extended interim contract at the University Hospital. I was looking forward to a break when out of the blue, Mark called me. He explained that he was in the process of setting up a consultancy, had secured a project but wanted someone to run it. Of course, I accepted his offer and signed up to be an associate of Clarity. The assignment didn’t quite turn out how he’d sold it to me, but I wasn’t really surprised. It was during this assignment that I met his lovely wife Lynne. I also found out about his love of model trains!

Over the following five years I worked exclusively through his consultancy, he’d call me and say something like, ‘I’ve got a great opportunity for you’, or ‘I know you like Cornwall, well I’ve got a great role for you there’! He was of course always ready to help and if he were here today, I’m sure he’d remember, along with Lynne, drafting a tonne of policies for one special assignment!

Through Clarity Mark, with the help of Andrew Moore his co-founding partner, started what felt like an extended family. Graduates were brought in, coached and supported. Quarterly evening meetings were arranged that drew in excellent speakers. A notable two-day training event was held in Oxford on ‘Better Value Health Care’ with Professor Sir Muir Gray which was both thought-provoking and entertaining.

It was with enormous sadness that in late Summer 2017, I learned of Mark’s illness. We chatted on the phone a few times where he was very open about his diagnosis. I met up with him at a few Clarity events and I was amazed by how he was handling this devastating prognosis. At one such meeting, we chatted quietly, and he explained he was in the process of writing up the Smith Family History on more than 200 PowerPoint slides. We also discussed religion; he knew I was a non-believer which he respected. I also discovered Mark’s love for Bonsai trees and his substantial collection.

We chatted on the phone a few times more and he commented on how much he liked seeing my photographs pop up on Facebook. We agreed to meet again in January 2019 for a breakfast near his home in Southampton. This was our very last meeting. Mark was on great form and we chatted freely on all sorts of topics whilst enjoying a wonderful breakfast. I’d prepared carefully for this meeting as I suspected it would be the last. I’d confided in a close friend in advance who gave me good advice and so I was able to convey my thoughts and let him know how he had been instrumental in shaping my career. We talked openly for an hour or so, then he said he had to go. We said our goodbyes and I headed to Cornwall carrying a heavy heart.

I’m aware that the following final months were difficult for both Mark and Lynne, but I know he was supported by his family. I sent him pictures from Cornwall that Lynne said he enjoyed looking at.

I was so sad to hear that Mark slipped away on Friday 21 June 2019. I confess with the sadness was there was the relief that his suffering was no more. I had a few glasses of whiskey and reflected on past times. On Monday 24 June, I decided to go out with a friend for a meal in Truro. I was heading to a restaurant when seemingly from nowhere, a white feather f