A decade since his death, a former Nottinghamshire GP’s memory lives on through an award dedicated to people who fight for health equality in the inner city, Lauren Whitehouse went to the ceremony to find out more.

Dr Michael Varnam, a former Sneinton GP who dedicated 35 years to helping people not only in Nottingham but on an international level, died 10 years ago.

Michael set up an annual recognition award to raise awareness before he died aged only 61, to reward and encourage the work people do in the inner city to address issues of health and inequalities.

Friend and former colleague, Dr Margaret Abbott said: “Michael was an inspiration. He came to Nottingham in 1998 and immediately noticed the needs of the population who were living in deprived conditions and did whatever he could to make a difference to people’s lives and inspire others to do the same”.

After Michael’s tragic death from cancer in 2006, the awards were continued in his honour, organised jointly by Nottingham City Council, Nottingham City Health and Wellbeing Board, NHS Nottingham City Clinical Commissioning Group (CCG), One Nottingham and the Youth Parliament ever since.

His death came at a time when his influence was most strongly felt, so the local community felt they should honour his life and ideals as well as rewarding those who shared his vision.

Michael himself set up:

  • A welfare rights service in Sneinton practice to help people receive benefits they perhaps did not realise they were entitled to.
  • Counselling for people with a lot of stress
  • A service to help people with substance abuse right away as the waiting list was six months long which he trained himself to run which still runs to 150 people in Nottingham now

On a national level he set up the first GP training scheme in the country to ensure GP’s were giving the best service possible.

His contribution on an international level included him going to Sri Lanka several times to set up primary care services there also.

Dr Abbott described Michael as a “larger than life character, warm, very generous and passionate about health and equalities”.

At the Michael Varnam annual awards ceremony last week, two winners (a group and an individual) were named out of hundreds of candidates and six shortlisted nominees.

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Individual winner Louise Detain, a foster carer who is also heavily involved with a number of community projects including a children’s choir and a support group for people affected by domestic violence said “winning this award is unbelievably flattering and encouraging”.

The organisation Equation where Louise works won the group award a few years previously for a venture called ‘The GREAT Project”.

“Michael was well connected with the community, he loved them and still after all these years, they love him.”
Alison Challenger, Director of Public Health

This years group winners were Nottinghamshire Deaf Wellbeing Action Group who provide practical help and campaigns for rights of the deaf community, as well as educating people in British Sign Language.

Runners up ‘Nature in Mind’ who help vulnerable adults suffering with stress, anxiety, depression, low self-esteem and poor physical health through nature-based activities said: “It was great to be nominated for this special award, Michael sounds like he was a very special individual and we can only hope that this award continues for many years to come in his honour”.

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Other runners up who were highly commended were:

  • Bushra Naeem, who has volunteered since the age of 18 to help women who are socially isolated, raised money for charity and organised a food bank. She is also vice president of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Women Association in Nottingham
  • Maxi Leigh, who runs a charity called Support For Survivors which helps people who have been affected by abuse. She also sits on the National Catholic Safeguarding Commission
  • Souprunners, a group of students at the University of Nottingham who give up their spare time to support homeless people, providing food, clothing, sleeping bags and general advice

It is tradition that this award ceremony is hosted by Nottingham City Council’s current Director of Public Health as it does recognise people who are suffering with poor health and well-being and the very vulnerable.

This year Alison Challenger took up this role. She told the audience at the ceremony that whilst she didn’t personally know Dr Michael Varnam, she knew that Michael was well connected with the community, he loved them and still after all these years, they love him.

She said: “We look for those people in the community who make a real difference to people most in need”.

Outlining the little criteria to nominate somebody/an organisation for this award Challenger said the person needs to:

  1. Help people who live in the city
  2. Help vulnerable people
  3. Make a difference to the lives of people in Nottingham

Allison Challenger also noted that “Since we opened the nominations for these awards in the summer, it has become very clear that we are very lucky in Nottingham to have so many people in our communities who share his drive and commitment to support others”.

Dr Margaret Abbott who helped to present the awards ceremony and has every year since Michael’s death finished the award ceremony emotionally by saying: “Michael was a blessing, he could have worked anywhere being known nationally and internationally but we were very fortunate that he came to Nottingham and put his passion and expertise to work here for the people of Nottingham”.