It doesn’t matter about your background – if you are determined you can achieve your ambitions.
This was the key message to students at The St Lawrence Academy from a former student who is living proof.
Prof Stephen Westaby went from the backstreets of Scunthorpe to become one of the world’s pioneering heart surgeons.
The 71-year-old returned to his place of birth to give a lecture and see part of the current building named in his honour.
Prof Westaby told the audience, which included students hoping to study medicine from John Leggott College, he had wanted to be a heart surgeon from the age of 10.
“I watched my 60-year-old grandfather die of heart failure,” he said. “I said at the time I was going to do something about that when I grow up.”
His attentive audience heard how he had turned down a place at Cambridge University because “he did not fit in.”
“I was intimidated by the all the dons. I told a nurse showing me around I was from Lincoln rather than Scunthorpe.
“She replied she was from near Lincoln – ‘a village close to Scunthorpe’ – and from that day I have always been proud that I am from the backstreets of Scunthorpe.”
Three years later, he encouraged his brother – himself a successful London surgeon – not to follow his example and he accepted a place at the university city.
“It’s not about where you come from or what school you attended.
“You should be very proud of this school; from what I have seen it is a good school. Never be afraid of what your roots are.”
Brought up in Barnes Crescent, a short walk from what was then the grammar school, Prof Westaby also attended Henderson Avenue Junior.
The grammar school became High Ridge School from 1968 and, in 2008, converted to The St Lawrence Academy.
He studied at Charing Cross Hospital Medical School.
A game of rugby as a medical student proved another turning point. He was knocked out and the resulting serious head injury affected his brain.
“I lost all my inhibitions and any fear, which helped enormously in my career as a surgeon.”
He was appointed senior cardiac surgeon at the John Radcliffe Hospital in 1986, and was responsible for around 12000 heart operations before his retirement at the age of 68.
He developed and refined the use of heart pumps, artificial hearts and circulatory support technology to drive blood around the body and is working on a British artificial heart.
“We have something now that we can take off the shelf in the morning and give a patient the same survival rate as somebody undergoing a heart transplant. Nobody needs to die to save somebody else.”
Prof Westaby reinforced his key message.
“Think big: if you want to, you can do it. It doesn’t matter about your background, gender or anything else.”
He left a big impression on The St Lawrence Academy students.
Modestas Gailiunas said: “It was great to know that our background does not matter. It is the effort you put in that makes a difference.”
Destiny Smith found Prof Westaby “really inspiring” while Mohamed Salah-Al-Din said: “We can all have aspirations and need to follow them. He really impressed me.”
Westaby Hall is a permanent reminder to students that they, too, can achieve great things, said Principal Mike Adnitt.
“I thought he was terrific and we are very grateful for his time,” said Mr Adnitt.
“We teach our students to aspire, work hard, have a dream and a plan in place to achieve it. That is what today has been all about.”
The event had been the idea of Chair of Trustees Jennifer Vincent who had seen Prof Westaby talk proudly of his roots on television.
“It was everything I had hoped for,” she said. “He absolutely held the children’s attention. You could hear a pin drop throughout the talk.
“He has enjoyed an amazing career and it was a pleasure to invite such a distinguished alumnus back to St Lawrence to inspire our young people to succeed in the world of work.”
Mrs Vincent also thanked PA to the Principal Sally Simpson for organising the highly successful visit.