More Smiles

The founder of a children’s intensive care unit who has dedicated his career to saving lives has retired in the unit’s 25th anniversary year.

Dr Parviz Habibi, 65, retired on 14 October – two months after swimming the English Channel to raise funds for the renovation and expansion of the unit he founded at St Mary’s Hospital in Paddington.

The unit is at the centre of the More Smiles Appeal, which aims to raise at least £2 million towards a £10 million rebuild of the unit so a further 200 critically ill patients can be treated there every year. Dr Habibi is encouraging people to support the appeal’s 25 day #25for25 fundraising campaign, which launched on 17 October and urges people to donate £25 in celebration of the 25th anniversary of the unit.

“I already miss it - life in the fast lane. I work best under high pressure. I have always done well when there’s been a challenge. I will find new ways to reinvent myself,” said Dr Habibi.

“I’ll miss the excitement of turning somebody around who is on death’s door. It’s stressful but when you can do something well it’s no longer a stress, it’s a thrill.

“Yes there are downsides to the job – people die – but for everyone who dies we save ten-fold more. It goes with the territory. You don’t get hardened to it. You still cry and get a lump in your throat and still think you could have done something differently.”

Dr Habibi trained at Great Ormond Street Hospital, where he stayed for nine years before joining St Mary’s Hospital.

He opened the children’s intensive care unit at St Mary’s with one bed, one nurse and one consultant 25 years ago. By 1995, the unit had eight beds.

“This was an era in the early nineties where PICU wasn’t recognised as a speciality in this country,” he said.

“Children who were critically ill could only be admitted to an adult intensive care unit. The only exceptions were units such as Alder Hey in Liverpool and Great Ormond Street in London but they weren’t there to deal with children who came off the street requiring critical care.

“Children with meningitis, septicaemia, pneumonia or had fallen out of a building – it was a lottery for them if they found a bed. Great Ormond Street couldn’t take all the patients and clearly there was a need for more beds.”

Dr Habibi also pioneered a specialist retrieval service to transfer critically ill children from their local A&E to St Mary’s, which is still used today. As a result, he was honoured with a Millennium Celebration of Achievement Award by the Queen in 2000.

Over the years, he has welcomed Princess Diana, The Queen Mother and Sir Terry Wogan to St Mary’s.

The More Smiles Appeal, run by Dr Habibi’s COSMIC (Children of St Mary’s Intensive Care) charity and the Imperial College Healthcare Charity, aims to increase the number of beds in the unit from eight to 15.

Last year, the unit at St Mary’s had to turn away 160 children due to a lack of beds and they had to travel further afield for treatment.

“We have eight beds but it’s not enough,” said Dr Habibi.

“Our unit is unique. It stands apart from other highly specialised intensive care units because we see such a wide spectrum of illnesses.

"By supporting this appeal, you will be helping us build a new unit that will last another 25 years, continue to provide our exceptional care to thousands more children and build upon our legacy of clinical excellence. With your support we will give more children the future they deserve.”

Dr Habibi raised nearly £50,000 for the appeal in August by swimming 43.6 miles across the Channel in 19 hours, 11 minutes and 20 seconds.

He had previously completed four Channel swims as part of a relay team, but this time he completed it solo. He faced an even bigger challenge though as he developed a repetitive strain injury in his shoulder while swimming and was also suffering from a chest infection.

He said he was spurred on by his mentor and coach ‘King of the Channel’ Kevin Murphy, who has 34 crossings under his belt.

“People talk about the Channel demons and the Channel has several of those. They come in many forms and in my case it was pain telling me I should give up,” he said.

“I couldn’t lift my arm out of the water because I couldn’t move my shoulder.

“I told Kevin what was wrong and he said ‘it’s just pain, put up with it. Tomorrow you can be a Channel swimmer or a failure – choose. You wanted to do this, get on with it’. I thought of all the people who had sponsored me and just thought how can I possibly let them down?”

The More Smiles Appeal has now passed the £1 million halfway mark and is currently celebrating the 25th anniversary of the unit with the #25for25 fundraising campaign. To follow the 25 day campaign or to donate, go to or follow @MoreSmilesApp on Twitter.

To sponsor Dr Habibi’s swim, visit  

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