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Bravery of chemist who defied fierce floods to deliver vital medicines in evacuated Derbyshire town

The Daily Mail’s 2020 Health Hero Awards, launched in partnership with eBay and NHS Charities Together, are your chance to say thank you to the unsung heroes of the NHS, whatever their role, who go the extra mile.

This year we’re launching two extra awards — the Mental Health Hero award, and the eBay ‘Smile’ award in recognition of NHS volunteers.

Seven finalists will get an all-expenses-paid trip to London for the ceremony. The winner will also receive a £5,000 holiday.

Here, SHERON BOYLE tells the story of one nominee who really does go beyond the call of duty…

After several days of torrential rain last summer, the small Derbyshire town of Whaley Bridge was on the verge of being wiped out. The Toddbrook Reservoir dam behind it had started crumbling, threatening to send 300 million gallons of water crashing on to schools, businesses and homes.

More than 500 body bags were brought in to prepare for mass casualties and, on Thursday, August 1, the military and police evacuated more than 1,500 residents and traders.

Among them was chemist Raj Modi. Initially, Raj was reluctant to leave, realising that many of his loyal patients could be left without vital, often life-saving medication when the store he manages — Well Pharmacy, the only chemist in the town — was forced to close.

Health Hero nominee Raj Modi Pharmacist Raj Modi at Well Pharmacy, with staff members Sue Locke (left) and Helen Wallace (right)

Sue Locke and Helen Wallace, the two pharmacy assistants who were working the day they were told to evacuate, had to almost march him out.

‘Raj wanted us to go home, but we said: “No, we are not going without you,” recalls Sue, 55. ‘We knew if we had left him there, he would not have gone.’

They prepared dozens of prescriptions which Raj then personally delivered to patients’ homes early the next day in terrible weather conditions, before going to the pop-up pharmacy he had arranged in another branch 12 miles away in Disley.

‘For the rest of the week, that’s what he did,’ says Sue. ‘We set up a pharmacy in the Disley shop back rooms, but Raj would go to our Whaley Bridge shop at 7am every morning for a week, risking serious injury from flooding to get all the medications he needed.’

‘We’d make up the scripts [prescriptions] then Raj would do the deliveries, often with a police escort to help get to the customers worst affected by flooding,’ adds Helen, 57. ‘He always puts his customers first. But during the floods, he went over and above his duties.’

When the village dam was nearing breaking point in last August's floods, Raj refused to leave the chemists until he had made people's prescriptions up and the staff stayed with him

When the village dam was nearing breaking point in last August’s floods, Raj refused to leave the chemists until he had made people’s prescriptions up and the staff stayed with him

Married father-of-two Raj had spent 22 years working in Whaley Bridge when the storms hit the High Peak town. His plans to visit his son Shilen, 22, in Australia, were washed away with the rain.

‘We are used to bad weather here — we’ve had two winters when the snow has been above my car and I walked to customers’ homes, delivering medicines from a backpack — but that was nothing compared to last year’s floods,’ says Raj, 50.

‘Between Monday, July 29, and Wednesday, July 31, the rain was so heavy water was trickling over the dam walls.

‘We collect and deliver from six GP practices to three nursing homes and have at least 200 vulnerable patients out of the 10,000 we serve, spread across the valley. ‘On the Thursday, our temporary driver came into the shop and told us he was going home as the town was being evacuated. At 2pm, head office called to say everyone had to go home immediately.

‘But I knew I still had many prescriptions that needed to be done. I told the staff to go home but they wouldn’t, so we did as many as possible then arranged to make the rest up at the Disley shop.

‘Soon, the whole village was cordoned off. As I shut up shop at 3pm, I looked at the dam — about half a mile from our shop. I knew if the dam wall broke, the whole area would be decimated.’

Raj drove 15 miles to another store at Reddish to plan for the week ahead. He also put a message on social media and local radio stations, giving his mobile number for anyone worried about regular prescriptions.

The next morning he drove to the police cordon, then hopped into a police van to be taken to the shop to collect all the necessary medicines. He was returned to his car and then joined colleagues in making up the scripts, answering calls from worried patients and serving in the Disley branch. After they closed for the day, he’d drive more than 50 miles around the valley, delivering up to 120 prescriptions each day for the week the evacuation lasted.

He arrived at Cromford Court, a sheltered housing complex, on Sunday morning just before the residents were evacuated. ‘We have 32 of them on our books, and we managed to deliver everyone their medicine before they were moved to a hotel in Buxton,’ says Raj. ‘I was so pleased, as I knew that would help the home staff and stop anxiety among the residents.’

He worked right through the weekend. ‘The weather on the Sunday was appalling. I had to get deliveries done before 3pm, when it was forecast to worsen,’ Raj says.

‘I delivered medicines around the 12-mile radius for a full week. My family were worried as I hardly saw them. The police would also ring every hour when I was on deliveries, to check I was safe.’

Explaining what drove him, he says: ‘I could not let these people down, they are like friends to me.’

A friend is exactly how retired audiology professor Dr Andreas Markides, 82, and his wife, Dorothy, 77, see Raj. Their daughter, Dr Maria Markides, said her mother, who has had two strokes and heart issues, was anxious she would not get her life-saving medication.

‘Mum was on the phone to me that Sunday saying how worried she was when I heard someone knock on their front door. It was Raj — he brought all the medication they needed to get them through the week,’ says Maria.

‘I live 58 miles away in Southport and was so grateful to him.’

Maria says after her mother’s strokes in 2018, Raj had come to their house after work and showed her brain exercises to boost her recovery. ‘My parents think of him as a friend,’ says Maria, who has nominated Raj as her Health Hero. ‘He is a hero, a lifeline to many.’

Ironically, it was the weather that brought Raj and his parents to live in the North-West in 1972.

When his father, Asvin, now 73, left Kenya for England to find work, he was due to land in London but was diverted to Manchester because of the poor weather — and then set up home in Cheadle, Stockport. ‘He came with nothing,’ says Raj. ‘Then, two years later, my mum Pushpa [now 71], his parents, two aunts and I joined him.

‘He ran a corner shop and built that into a successful wholesaler. After my day studying at university, I would help deliver goods at night.’ Raj trained at Manchester University as his parents could not afford for him to live away from home.

Having qualified in pharmacy in 1992, he started working in Whaley Bridge in 2002. ‘I was one of the first Asian people here, but I was welcomed immediately and I’ve always wanted to pay the locals back for that,’ he says.

What happened last summer was far from the first time Raj has helped his community.

Over the years, he has given talks to local organisations such as hospices, WI meetings and charities, and donating to their designated good cause. ‘He buys tins of biscuits for local older people, and has served at and funded up to 60 pensioners to enjoy a Christmas lunch — and they’re not even customers,’ laughs Sue.

Even on weekends off, Raj still thinks of others: ‘I spent one night a weekend for eight months in 2018 cleaning, cooking and serving food at a homeless shelter in Manchester.’ He also volunteered on Friday evenings at a local youth club.

He says: ‘I know I am fortunate and it is important for me to put something back into society.’

Now, due to coronavirus, Raj is going the extra mile again and, with the help of the branch’s driver, delivers 50 prescriptions a day to vulnerable and elderly people.

Many of Raj’s ten-strong team have been with him since he moved to the area. ‘He’s is such a caring boss,’ says Helen. ‘During the floods, he’d ring us all every evening to check if we were OK and if we needed food. No job is too grand for him — he will do whatever he asks the staff to do, whether it’s mopping floors, cleaning windows or shelf-stacking.

Raj says he treats staff and customers as though they were a second family. ‘I’d like to think if my parents or sister were in trouble, others would help them.’

Weeks after the 2019 storms had calmed, the village held a thanksgiving service at which Raj spoke. He told the audience about an old African tribal proverb: ‘If you want to go fast, you go alone. But if you want to go far, you go together.’ 

Health Hero Awards: This fantastic campaign for awesome NHS

Prime Minister Boris Johnson, wearing a face mask, during a visit to the headquarters of the London Ambulance Service on Monday

Prime Minister Boris Johnson, wearing a face mask, during a visit to the headquarters of the London Ambulance Service on Monday

By Boris Johnson 

This unprecedented period has been a challenge for the whole country.

Across the UK, people have made so many sacrifices by staying at home, going through the hardship of isolation and being separated from their families and loved ones.

In these difficult times, and as we continue to recover from and defeat this deadly virus, we have never had more reason to be grateful for the NHS and all the people who work in it.

In April, I experienced first‑hand the dedication and commitment of our wonderful NHS staff after I was admitted to hospital with coronavirus.

At the time, I felt frustrated that my health had deteriorated so quickly. But the seriousness of the situation hit me when I was wired up to monitors, given oxygen and moved to intensive care.

As I’ve said before, I was very lucky. There is no doubt that the NHS saved my life, and it was only thanks to the brilliant nurses and doctors who worked tirelessly round the clock that I survived.

Two nurses in particular — Jenny and Luis — stayed by my bedside for 48 hours when things could have gone either way. I was fortunate enough to meet them again last week, so I could thank them in person.

But it is not just doctors and nurses. Every day hundreds of thousands of people — from therapists and porters, to cooks and cleaners — have been working hard to save countless lives.

At the start of the month we celebrated the 72nd anniversary of the NHS, and once again I want to pay tribute to those NHS staff who have gone above and beyond not just during this pandemic, but every day they have worked in our health service.

That’s why I wholeheartedly support the Daily Mail’s NHS Health Hero Awards, which celebrates NHS staff and volunteers who have gone the extra mile.

This fantastic campaign also supports NHS Charities Together, a group of more than 250 charitable organisations which raise vast sums for the NHS every year.

This has been a hugely challenging year for everyone working in the NHS, and these awards are a great opportunity to recognise the awe‑ inspiring efforts of just some of those who have made a huge difference to someone else’s life.

 

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