Good nurses must be able to combine compassion with great leadership
I remember my first day as a nurse. I sat, with around 100 other students, in a big lounge area at the bottom of Gassiot House, the nursing home and education centre for St Thomas' Hospital. We were all nervous as we waited for the Nursing Director to arrive. Chatting to the people around me, the conversation soon got onto what had made them want to be a nurse.
One person told me that it was the day when she was in a light aircraft and the undercarriage had failed to operate. She described how she had helped to push it down. It wasn't perfect, but it helped. The plane had crash-landed and she had helped to care for the injured until the ambulances arrived.
Another person told me how she had pulled over to the side of the road and volunteered to help at a major motorway accident. Like the girl who had helped to land a plane, the experience had had a profound effect on her. She knew she wanted to be a nurse.
I couldn't add to those amazing experiences when I was asked why I wanted to be a nurse. I just knew that I did. It was definitely a calling. When the Director of Nursing arrived and told us about the course, how our shifts would work and our pay cheque, I remember being pleasantly surprised. I was barely 18 years old and I had entered the profession without any knowledge of these very important issues. Had they told me that we rarely got days off and that the pay was pitiful, it wouldn't have made any difference to me. That wasn't why I had signed up. I think most of the people around me felt the same. This wasn't going to be a job in the normal sense, this was a way of life. And it was fantastic.
Back in the 1970s, we weren't aware of any Government targets but we did have anxieties. The rules were strict but there was an amazing sense of teamwork and belonging. The training was highly academic at St Thomas'. Although I hadn't chosen to do the 4 year degree course (it included training as Health Visitor and I didn't want to do that), we all did the same training for the two year period that the undergraduates were inside a hospital.
In the 1970s, nursing was highly regarded. I knew there was stiff competition to get a place on my course and I was assessed every step of the way. I was surrounded by like-minded people. Most of us were natural leaders, having had a taste of responsibility during our last years at school. Although we were mostly 18 years old, we had all been responsible for running something, however small, in the past.
We learned in the nursing school, we learned from the trained staff on the wards and we learned from the student nurses who were ahead of us. Under their guidance we perfected our techniques day after day on the ward - everything from bed-making to understanding and delivering sophisticated drug regimes and mastering the use of complicated equipment. But, way above that, we were taught, and naturally absorbed leadership skills. From the start, if I was too slow or made a tiny error, the person assigned to look after me that day (more senior student nurse or above) would step in and take full responsibility for my actions, even if she/he wasn't there at the time. When the time came for me, as a student, to help someone more junior than me, I did the same thing. It was a lesson I shall never forget.
In my day, many girls from excellent schools signed up to be nurses. Although they weren't a requirement, most of us had three good A levels. All of us had demonstrated at our interviews that we had the potential to combine compassion with great leadership skills. True, there wasn't the same career choice in those days. It was not assumed that everyone with A levels would want to go to university to do any course, let alone nursing.
Today, bad headlines about poor care don't help recruitment. No one in their final year at my daughter's school is considering nursing as a career. It is very sad.
Good nurses have the world at their feet. But, wherever I look, that message doesn't seem to be getting through to career advisers within schools. I should like to see adverts in newspapers, making it clear where this wonderful job can take you. More of those incredible senior nurses, many now professors, should be reaching out to targeted audiences, using the media whenever possible, to tell people about their amazing journey.
During my final year, I won a scholarship to study childcare in an American university. It was an experience that changed my life forever. I returned to complete my training and then, following a time as a volunteer on the hospital radio station, was heard by a BBC producer and went on to pursue a career as a reporter, initially specialising in healthcare. In my spare time, I worked in a children's home. I have also worked for a number of healthcare charities. Throughout my career, I have continued to use my nursing skills, especially my leadership skills, in many ways.
In 2009, I co-founded and now run Kissing it Better. In the early days I did it with Nicola Matthews. Now I run it with Liz Pryor. We all share a passion to enhance nursing care using the hundreds of simple ideas that are sent to us, on a daily basis, from nurses, doctors, patients, carers etc. We also work by harnessing the energy of dynamic groups within a hospital's catchment area and inviting them to come in and make a difference to patient care.
I know, through the care my mother received, that nursing care is not always as good as it should be. During her time in hospital, I complained on many occasions.
I now believe with a passsion that endlessly knocking the system, without ever championing those wonderful nurses who are doing a great job, will ultimately destroy the NHS. Those endless, awful headlines are not an incentive for young people to join up.
So, I am asking you to join us, to offer your skills ( an hour a year or an hour a day) to do your bit to help lift the spirits of patients, carers and staff. You will make a difference.You will have a great time too.
For more information see www.kissingitbetter.co.uk. Then scroll down and watch the film that the BBC made about our work. If that link doesn't work on your computer, put the words
BBC health lister
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