Royal Preston doctor who suffered Covid-induced heart failure rediscovers her singing voice for Queen's jubilee charity single

Singing has long been how Dr. Alison Birtle chooses to relax when not working as a cancer specialist at the Royal Preston Hospital.

Wednesday, 18th May 2022, 12:53 am
Updated Wednesday, 18th May 2022, 1:59 am

It is a release which Covid has now robbed her of twice – first, in the wake of the March 2020 lockdown, when an imminent starring role in a performance of the musical Hairspray was duly cancelled.

The second occasion, however, threatened to bring a more permanent end to the consultant oncologist’s treasured pastime, when, in January this year, she caught the virus during the initial Omicron wave – and subsequently suffered heart failure.

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Dr. Alison Birtle getting ready to fly the flag for NHS staff- and the Queen - on a new charity single

Triple vaccinated and healthy, Dr. Birtle admits to being shocked at how hard the virus hit her.

“I certainly didn’t think I was ever going to get back to singing,” she recalls.

“When I first fell ill, I lost my voice and was exhausted. That lasted for about ten days and things were improving [until] one day I was walking through Lancaster and realised I was breathless and started getting chest pains.

“After that, things escalated quite quickly. It was something that happened when I thought I was getting better and then suddenly you go backwards – and that’s quite common with Covid.

Dr. Birtle was part of the NHS Voices of Care Choir who sang You'll Never Walk Alone, with Michael Ball, at the Royal Variety Performance at Blackpool Opera House in late 2020

“I have got a nearly 15-year-old son and when I was in casualty [on the second of two occasions] and they were monitoring me in the resuscitation area, you do think [about how] this is something that is threatening your own mortality.”

Now also suffering from Long Covid, Dr Birtle has nevertheless managed to recover sufficiently from her crushing experience at the hands of the virus to rediscover her singing voice – and just in time.

Because the call recently came for her to join the reformed NHS Voices of Care Choir to record a charity single to mark the Queen’s platinum jubilee.

The singing collective of health service staff shot to fame at the height of the first lockdown when they appeared with Michael Ball and Captain – and, later, Sir – Tom Moore on a rendition of You’ll Never Walk Alone.

The hastily-arranged collaboration saw medics, including Preston-born Dr. Birtle, record their parts individually from wherever they were in the country – “I did mine in between virtual clinics,” she remembers.

It scored them a number one song and was a further boost to NHS Charities Together, which had already benefited from the £33m raised by Captain Sir Tom’s completion of 100 laps of his garden.

This time around – and having taken Covid tests beforehand – the choir was able to gather together to perform and record the national anthem, the proceeds from which will go to the British Red Cross.

The track features Alfie Boe and Sarah Brightman on principal vocals, with the pair having recorded their contributions at a different session – and Dr. Birtle performing both alto and tenor roles due to there being a relatively small male contingent in the choir.

The single will be released on 27th May and also contains a recording of the national anthem from the Queen’s Coronation.

“The NHS Voices of Care Choir popping up again was just a magical thing.

“You are there representing so many things – I felt that I was representing my patients, the [hospital] trust and the cancer centre that I’m so proud of.

“It was very different from last time, because I did the first one at home in a few hours. This [recording] was done in a few hours as well, but because our choirmaster is so fantastic, it means he really gets the best out of you..

“I’m an ardent supporter of the Queen, so we all felt very emotional, particularly singing those traditional tracks. And the arrangements are lovely as well.

“It was a real privilege to do it and I just felt that [it was fitting] after the last few years of the pandemic and then having had Covid myself in January.”

Dr. Birtle, who has worked at the Rosemere Cancer Centre for 17 years, says that her Covid story shows that the Omicron variant is not universally “mild” – and that caution in the face of the virus should still be a given, rather than an exception.

“It’s one of those things [where] some people are fine and some people just aren’t.

“If you invite someone to come and live with you, both of you make adaptations. But what seems to have happened now is [that] we’re living with Covid, but we’re not asked to make any adaptations anymore.

“I wear a mask most places I go. When I was on the train [to London for] the recording session, I think I was about one of three people I saw [wearing one].

“Living with Covid means that we all still should make some adjustments,” Dr. Birtle stresses

Having originally attempted to work from home in the weeks after falling ill, she ultimately realised that she needed to take a proper break from the job she loves.

Now slowly easing herself back into work, Dr. Birtle says that being able to sing again will be good for her physical recovery – “it boosts your endorphins and improves your respiratory function” – and a sure sign for her family that she is on the road back to full fitness.

“Singing is such an important part of my life. As my son says, if I’m not singing then he knows something is up – normally it means I’m not very happy about something, because otherwise I spend all my time singing.”