Lives of the fellows

Rita Cecily Walker

b.6 February 1933 d.17 December 2014
BSc Lond(1954) MB BS(1958) MRCS LRCP(1958) DCH(1961) MRCP(1970) FRCP(1984)

Rita Walker was a senior consultant in geriatric medicine to the Romford Group of Hospitals. She was born Rita Travers in New Southgate, north London, the daughter of Cissie and Len Travers. As a child Rita was admitted to Stoke Mandeville Hospital for pioneering surgery to straighten her cooked little fingers on each hand. It was during her time in hospital that she decided that she wanted to work in medicine when she grew up. Her father, recognising her intelligence and potential, told her she should aim to become a surgeon or a doctor. The surgery on her fingers was not successful, and although this did not stop her playing the piano, it did prevent her from becoming a surgeon.

Having been awarded a scholarship to St Mary’s Hospital, London, Rita subsequently qualified as a doctor in May 1958 – having taken a year out to complete a BSc in 1954 and then having her final exams delayed by Asian flu in 1957. She was awarded prizes in physiology, anatomy and clinical medicine during the course of her student career.

Rita did house jobs at the King Edward Memorial Hospital, Ealing, before moving on to further junior hospital appointments in casualty, paediatrics and anaesthetics between 1959 and 1962.

She married Eric William Walker, a barrister-at-law, in March 1961 and a son William was born nearly a year later, in February 1962 – just before Rita took on a two-year attachment as an honorary clinical assistant in rheumatology at St Stephen’s Hospital, Fulham. This led to a two-year traineeship in general practice, in Epping. But life as a GP was not Rita’s calling. In 1966 she returned to hospital medicine, as a registrar in geriatric medicine at Whipps Cross Hospital, and then as a medical assistant in geriatric medicine in Harlow. A daughter Eva was born in March 1968 and two years later, in 1970, Rita simultaneously passed the MRCP exam and became a consultant geriatrician to the Romford Group of Hospitals, at the age of 37. In her latter years in the post she also carried out voluntary/pro-bono work as a physician at St Francis Hospice, Havering.

In her personal life Rita faced some tough challenges. In addition to the normal challenges of combining a high achieving medical career with motherhood, Rita had to support her husband Eric through illness, which was to plague him up to the time of his death in a road accident in 1982. During the same years she also provided similarly devoted support to her ageing parents when their health started to fail.

During the late 1970s Rita somehow found time to pursue an absorbing and unusual leisure interest. Her son William writes: ‘…for a hobby Rita Walker studied law at evening classes, qualified as a barrister-at-law, and was called to the Bar (Gray's Inn) in 1979. She never practised law professionally, but did help to organise a mock trial to prepare nurses for the unfamiliar ordeal of giving testimony in the Old Bailey trial of a former US army paramedic convicted of impersonating a doctor. … The GMC instigated a number of changes to its screening procedures for foreign doctors as a result of the case.’ Rita’s sense of humour comes across in a photo from her retirement party that her family treasure; of her wearing both a stethoscope and a barrister’s wig.

She was a good old-fashioned doctor, devoted to her patients and colleagues, and she took her Hippocratic oath very seriously. Medicine was a way of life as well as a career to Rita and she (as well as her family) was immensely proud when her fellow consultants nominated her for the FRCP in 1984.

For many years the family home was in Theydon Bois, Essex, near to the hospitals where Rita worked. Following her retirement in February 1998, she moved to live in Harpenden, to be near her daughter Eva and family. Adding to being a devoted mother to her children and loyal friend to many, Rita became a devoted grandmother to three grandchildren, Zoe, Amy and Lily. Her hobbies moved from the solemn pageantry of the law to a (literally) more down to earth interest in gardening. She was to enjoy around 15 years of happy retirement before her own health finally began to fail. By sad irony, having provided compassionate care to so many others with the condition, Rita was diagnosed as suffering from Alzheimer’s disease in April 2014. She bore this diagnosis with her characteristic courage and pragmatism – her sense of humour even coming to the fore as she struggled to find novel ways of remembering things, with the assistance of her grandchildren. By now Rita was very frail and when she suffered from a bowel perforation in November 2014, she was not strong enough to recover after surgery and she died peacefully, her devoted children at her bedside, in December 2014.

Rita Cecily Walker was a great many things to a great many people. She was a fine mother, wife, sister, aunt, friend and mentor, to name a few things. She was a fine doctor – and a shining example to her profession. I have had the privilege to call her my great aunt (she married my mother’s uncle), godmother and mentor in the early stages of my own medical career.

Mark Hallam

[BMJ 2015 350 1526 – accessed 25 April 2015]

(Volume XII, page web)

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