A superstar speech therapist who developed a potentially life-saving system to minimise the risk of choking by children has received a top award.

Fiona Luff was stunned when Gary Doherty, Chief Executive of Betsi Cadwaladr University Health Board (BCUHB), surprised her with a prestigious Gwobr Seren Betsi Star Award.

She was nominated for the BCUHB award after developing an innovative colour-coded advice system with schools in Conwy and Denbighshire. It immediately alerts lunchtime assistants, teachers, health workers and carers about the specific needs of children with eating and drinking problems.

A placemat with a photo of the child indicating to staff that they need to check the eating and drinking advice has also been introduced in a school in Llandudno.

Fiona, who is based in Colwyn Bay Hospital, is only the third BCUHB staff member to receive the award, which honours the hard work and dedication of workers.

Following the pilot scheme, the awards will now be made a permanent fixture, with patients, families and colleagues able to nominate any of the Health Board’s 16,000 staff for their commitment to care.

Fiona received a standing ovation from 30 of her colleague who excitedly gathered round to watch the accolade being handed over, during a training day at Pantasaph Conference Centre, near Holywell.

Gary said the Green, Amber, Red placemats system developed by Fiona was both deceivingly straightforward and ingenious.

He said: “It often happens that seemingly complex problems can be solved in the most simple of ways. It just takes someone with the experience and clarity of thought to follow an idea through.

“That is exactly what has happened here. Fiona’s in-depth knowledge of her field, coupled with her formidable passion for the cause, has enabled her to come up with a workable and extremely practical solution.

“It’s amazing to think something so straightforward will make life easier for thousands of families.”

Working with Ysgol y Gogarth day and residential special school in Llandudno, she progressed the system to incorporate colour coded placemats bearing each child’s name and photograph. These quickly highlight to school dining staff the level of assistance each child needs when eating or drinking.

In addition Fiona liaised with school kitchen staff to ensure that food was presented in the most suitable consistency and texture for each child, and flavours separated where possible, rather than all being combined together.

The 50-year-old was secretly nominated for the BCUHB Gwobr Seren Betsi Star Award by her manager, Joy Rettie.

Joy said: “Fiona’s work in developing the colour-coded placemats has been exceptional and will make such a significant difference to so many children’s mealtime routines. The placemats link to a colour-coded training package which Fi has developed and delivered to staff in Education across Conwy and Denbighshire ‘’

Joy said she wanted to officially recognise Fiona’s relentless determination to improve day to day life for the children in her care and their families.

She said: “She works extremely hard, always doing her utmost to help every family or individual she works with. In addition she is steadfastly supportive of her colleagues and so well thought of by everyone in BCHUB’s speech and language department’’

“We are all proud to have her on our team.”

Fiona said her nomination for the BCUHB Gwobr Seren Betsi Star Award, and the visit by the health board’s chief executive, came as a complete surprise.

“I had no idea this was going to happen. It’s incredible to be given such an honour for doing a job I love so much,” said Fiona, who lives with her GP husband Dr Robin Luff in Bontnewydd and has three children, Steffan, Alwena and Eben.

During her 25-year career she has developed a special interest in working with children who experience problems eating and swallowing food and drink, from six-month-old babies to 18-year-olds.

She said: “When a child has difficulty eating food or simply having a drink it can impact on a family’s whole way of life. Often their entire day is taken up ensuring that the child is safely fed and sufficiently nourished.

“It is not just a question of providing the right food, but the texture and consistency of ingredients is important too. In addition the child’s posture comes into play or simply the way in which they hold their head, not just in terms of their physical comfort but for their safety and wellbeing.

“Mealtimes, which are routine to most of us, can be life-threatening for children facing severe difficulty. If they receive inappropriate foods or are not positioned in a way that they can safely swallow then it can affect their breathing, with the ever present danger of a child choking or ending up in hospital.

“This can be so distressing and exhausting for families. I feel it’s part of my job as a speech therapist to help minimise that stress and it’s so important for me to do anything I can to make mealtimes a little easier for individual children, their parents and siblings.

“My fellow speech therapists Leah Buddle and Dave Hostler both played a key part in developing this system, as well as consultant paediatrician Dr Val Klimach. Its success is as much down to them as to myself. So a big thank you to everyone who has contributed to getting the idea off the ground,” added Fiona.

Staff can be nominated for a BCUHB Gwobr Seren Betsi Star Award by their managers or team leaders, co-workers or patients, their families and members of the public.

Nominations are then considered and winners selected by BCUHB’s ‘Proud Of’ working groups, made up of a wide cross section of staff from across the health board.

Winners are presented with a certificate, a commemorative Welsh Slate trophy and a star badge to wear at work.

Nia Thomas, BCUHB’s head of organisational development, said: “Gwobr Seren Betsi Star Award honour individuals or teams who have gone out of their way to ensure we offer the highest level of care.

“We want to recognise staff who go the extra mile to embed the values deep within the organisation’s culture, of improving health and delivering excellent care.

“We value the hard work and commitment shown by staff and we want to show our appreciation and share this with the wider organisation and beyond.”