But now almost 40 years later, Kevin Clifford has risen from being a self-described ‘tea boy’ in Sheffield hospitals to becoming chief nurse for the city’s Clinical Commissioning Group - responsible for working with all healthcare providers in the city to monitor the quality of services being received by patients.
As he approaches retirement from the NHS at the end of this month, Mr Clifford said he has approached caring for patients both in frontline and managerial roles with the same question at the front of his mind - ‘Would this be good enough for my mum?’
The 55-year-old dad-of-two grew up a few miles away from Sheffield in Creswell in Derbyshire.
He said he originally thought he wanted to be a hospital lab technician, but after doing work experience as a teenager realised that his true passion would be working with patients.
At 16 years old, he enrolled on the nursing course at Granville College in Sheffield.
Kevin said: “My dad who was a miner got a bit of a shock when I said I wanted to work with patients and would train to be a nurse. It took him a while to get used to it.
“Growing up in a mining village, I remember having a small altercation with a friend’s brother who made all sorts of suggestions about why I wanted to be a nurse rather than a miner.
“But people were generally interested. You did get the occasional comment but they were the minority. People just wanted to know why I had chosen the career and what it was like.
“It was 91 girls and me - I was the only male on the pre-nursing course. That was the nature of training in the 1970s.”
But he said he gradually began to notice more men coming into the profession as his career progressed and the idea of men being nurses became more accepted.
He said a passion for helping patients had led to his career choice.
“The reason for doing it was the wish to make a difference, the wish to care,” he said.
“One of the things I said when I was 16 was - ‘If it wasn’t good enough for my mum, it is not good enough for anybody’.
“In those early days, it was very easy to see if you had a patient where you could make a difference to them as an individual.
“As I got more senior, it was about actually translating those values - I can still care and make a difference across a whole range of services.
“Crucial to the job I do now is working with hospitals, care homes, GP practices, a whole range of healthcare providers, where our job is to help them get better.
“It is about making really, really good services even better.”
While at college, his first placement was at Middlewood Hospital mental health unit.
He said: “I had no idea what Middlewood was. I turned up on my first day and got a little bit of a shock that I had a mental health placement.
“I accepted what I had to do. Twenty minutes after I arrived, the nurse manager handed me a key and said ‘You better not lose this’. So my first placement was on a locked mental health ward when I was 16 years old.
“I was there for three months and by the end I had an amazing appreciation of what long-term mental health care was like. In the first few weeks, to say I was terrified would be an understatement. The sorts of patients who were there had been there for many, many years.
“As a pre-nursing student I did all sorts of things.
“In those days, urine pots for patients were reusable. One of my jobs was to empty out the urine, wash them and them through an autoclave, which is an old-fashioned steriliser.
“I did that every afternoon for three months. But I learnt the fundamentals of infection control, which are still the same in 2016 as they were in 1978.”
After completing his college course, Kevin began his student training as a nurse in 1979 at the Northern General, qualifying in 1983 - and meeting his future wife and fellow nurse Andrea in the meantime.
While working as a staff nurse at the Northern General Hospital, in 1983 Kevin started a nursing degree - one of just 11 people on a course from Yorkshire who qualified from the course in Leeds. He did the course during days off from work.
He later went on to do a masters in Health Economics and Management at Sheffield University in 1999.
He became a charge nurse in 1987, working nights for a year before doing day shifts between 1988 and 1990.
Kevin said: “It was probably the best job I ever had. Having your own ward, having you own team and the real ability to influence the care you patients receive.”
His ward at the time specialised in respiratory and gastroenterology diseases, often looking after patients with cystic fibrosis.
He said it was ‘exciting’ to be working there at a time when the treatment of cystic fibrosis was improving to allow people with the condition to live for longer than sufferers had in the past.
But Kevin said that time coincided with the hardest experience of his career - working on the day of the Hillsborough disaster.
He said he never got to find out what happened to a young boy he cared for in the immediate aftermath of the 1989 disaster, in which 96 Liverpool supporters died at an FA Cup semi-final match.
“I was working the morning shift, finished at 3pm,” recalled Kevin.
“I left to go in my car for my daughter who was a few months old. I got in the car, put the radio on to listen to the game.
“I realised as I was pulling in to my in-laws’ drive, this wasn’t normal. I went straight back to the work and got to the Northern before the first casualty arrived and went down to A&E.
“It was horrible. It was an experience you take with you your whole career – the fact we were caring for people our age.
“We didn’t see the worst of the death because that was at Hillsborough. But it was a day I never want to repeat.”
Kevin said he was asked to look after a young boy aged around 14 who was unconscious and had been separated from his family.
He said the boy had no identification on him so after he was relieved of his shift at 11pm, he never found out what happened to the child or who he was.
“I never heard what happened to him. I never knew his name. He had a little bit of money in his wallet and his ticket for the game, that was all.”
His wife Andrea was also working at the hospital on the day of the disaster.
“Life is very different now. Back then, if you had experience like that, you got a pat on the back and a thank you – we didn’t get a debrief.
“We went on holiday shortly after for a couple of weeks and we were able to support each other.”
But the keen Sheffield Wednesday fan said the impact of the tragedy fully hit him the next time he attended a match at Hillsborough.
“I was not watching the game at all, I was just looking at Leppings Lane being empty and getting quite upset.
“It was probably the point at which it hit me.”
In 1991, Kevin became a clinical nurse manager, responsible for overseeing six wards and later went on to become a nursing director and part of the newly-formed Sheffield Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust executive team.
“I had literally gone from being tea boy to being a director of Sheffield Teaching Hospitals,” he said.
In 2010, Kevin joined the Sheffield Primary Care Trust as chief operating officer and became chief nurse for its successor organisation the Clinical Commissioning Group in 2012.
His job involves ensuring that healthcare services commissioned to serve patients in the city are operating at the highest-possible standards.
He said he takes a similar approach to former British Cycling coach Sir Dave Brailsford’s theory of ‘marginal gains’ - the making of a series of small improvements that add to up to significantly better performance when they are all added together.
Kevin said he does not intend to have a ‘pipe and slippers’ retirement and already has a number of different projects lined up. He said he will take away fond memories of his time working for the city’s NHS.
“The abiding memory I will take is some of the experiences I have had with patients,” he said.
“I can name patients I looked after in the 1970s and 1980s.
“The other thing is the people I have worked with.
“I have worked with hundreds of very special people and a handful of extra-special people. I honestly think the people of Sheffield have a great health service.”