SURGERY is undoubtedly one of the most important treatments offered by the NHS.

With more and more medical conditions now being remedied by going ‘under the knife’, millions of lives are improved and indeed saved by surgery each year.

Growing up in Hackney, East London, in the 1960s and 70s, Mario Petrou decided he wanted to become a surgeon.

The son of a butcher, he took his inspiration from TV programmes, books and news articles.

The 53-year-old has now carried out around 4,000 surgeries – the majority for the NHS – and has a survival rate which makes him one of the top six performing heart surgeons in the country.

The father-of-three was appointed head of programme for complex aortic surgery and clinical lead for cardiac surgery at the John Radcliffe Hospital in 2011.

Since his arrival the hospital has vastly increased the number of cardiac operations performed, while radically reducing infection rates and improving patient outcomes.

Not bad for the boy from East London.

He said: “I grew up in Hackney on a council estate, and I’m proud of that.

“I wanted to go into medicine from the age of about 14.

“I chose to study the sciences, and I had that feeling about becoming a doctor and so I went into medicine.

“Soon after that I specifically wanted to do surgery.

“I was fascinated about the stories I had heard and read about, particularly the first heart transplant in 1967 by Professor Christiaan Barnard, and watching medical programmes.

“My dad was a butcher and mother was a dressmaker, so they didn’t really have a good understanding of what it meant to study medicine in that they themselves hadn’t had any higher education.

“But they were very supportive of it – they could see I was keen.”

After training and working at the Royal Brompton Hospital in London for nine years, he chose to move to Oxford after being approached by the bosses at the John Radcliffe Hospital.

His wife had taken up a post as a thoracic surgeon at the JR and so the move made sense both for his family life and professional life.

He said: “Coming here has been very rewarding. The department has grown. For instance back in 2010/11 we were doing broadly 600 cardiac operations per year – nationally that’s a low number.

“Now we’re doing almost 1,000 each year, which puts us mid-table.

“We are doing more patients and more importantly our results are very good.”

Another change which has led to improved patient outcomes is the idea of a ‘familiar team’ in the operating theatre.

With surgeons working regularly with the same team of anaesthetists and nurses, a more ‘harmonious’ and ‘intuitive’ atmosphere is created in the theatre, according to Mr Petrou.

He said: “It’s not always possible because of the high turnover of staff in the NHS but with everybody’s help we have been able to achieve that over the last few years.”

And, as is common with the NHS, the theme of team work runs right through the improvements and successes seen at the unit over recent years.

The unit’s six surgeons, anaesthetists and scrubs nurses have all played a vital role in improving the care offered to patients, according to the experienced surgeon.

He said: “There’s been a lot of changes in the department that have been brought in with everyone working together. There’s a lot to be proud of.”

For Mr Petrou the desire to make improvements is driven by the desire to achieve the best results for his patients. That is both his biggest motivation and also his biggest frustration.

With pressures increasing on hospitals, more non-urgent surgeries are being cancelled to free up beds.

Tens of thousands of operations were cancelled across the country between December and March, with almost 600 non-elective operations postponed by Oxford University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, which runs the John Radcliffe.

And being forced to watch his patients wait longer for surgery is the aspect of his job that Mr Petrou finds the hardest to deal with.

He said: “I probably remember most of my cases to some degree.

“The patients who are extremely ill and get through that operation, and I see them in the clinic looking fit and well, that is extremely rewarding and that fundamentally is the best part of the job – when you see the results of what we do and you know, in some cases, it is truly life-saving.”

He added: “With experience, the operating itself becomes less stressful.

“The NHS it’s a fantastic institution we all believe that but it’s a challenge for all of us – the patients and staff.

“Having limited resources, limited capacity, limited funding and there are no magical solutions.

“That can be stressful in terms of the frustrations.”

He added: “You worry about the patients.

“One does worry when patients get cancelled and when they are waiting an inordinate length of time.”

However, despite the pressures, Mr Petrou believes the NHS can continue to offer excellence, provided everyone works together.

Referencing his survival rate statistics, he said: “Out of 250 odd surgeons in the country six of us were positive outliers.

“It just shows what we can achieve.

“But I can’t do that in isolation.

“I rely on the team.

“It shows we can achieve excellent results, better than some of the best units in Europe and probably North America despite the challenges that the NHS is facing.”