A career in serendipity
I was asked once at an interview if there was any comprehensible thread throughout my CV. I responded by saying ‘serendipity and luck’. I got the job. Stay with me on the journey and you will understand what I mean.
An unremarkable and miserable time at a secondary modern left me wandering around for a couple of years but along the way I managed to scrape together enough O-levels to start nursing at the Middlesex Hospital in London. Long before the nursing process or Project 2000 basic nursing care provided me with the joy of walking on to a medical ward and having time to sort things out, change all the beds, do the bed baths and listen. Night duty was often sitting on a patient’s bed (yes – so shoot me) listening. In fact I felt so strongly that some patients would be better just having someone who listened that once I qualified I immediately asked to be a registered mental nurse (RMN). I was lucky, a new course had been developed, 13 months later I qualified again. Psychiatry was not in a good place at that time, the large ‘asylums’ were closing and my experience working in them made me feel this was necessary but ‘care in the community’ the Government’s alternative was not well thought out, and would never be well funded, so I left London and left the UK.
I travelled to India to work in a rural medical centre. I had met a person at a party in London who had mentioned she knew of someone, who knew someone who had started a hospital so I wrote to him. Kabliji Hospital and Rural Health Centre had just opened and I was the first nurse. We had 30 inpatient beds and saw about 100 outpatients a day and ran a 24 hour service. I employed local men and women and trained them as health care workers. We carried out cataract surgery and minor operations and ran an antenatal and under-fives clinic that served ten villages. The villagers asked us for a school and we developed one on the campus. In the last 35 years the hospital and school have gone from strength to strength. Students from Kabliji school are now welcomed at the big private schools in Delhi and child mortality, and therefore the birth rate, has reduced dramatically. I now visit each year as a Trustee. Please visit the website and give generously.
After two years working 24 hours a day I was a bit tired but by then committed to women’s health. I came home for a break and worked as a clinical nurse teacher whilst training in family planning and sexually transmitted infections. I felt dissatisfied with the grumbles in the NHS when we are all so fortunate so I left again and this time for North Yemen. I worked as a British volunteer in a community programme on the Red Sea coast. This time we had a team of medical staff developing maternity, under-fives and an immunisation programme. It was hard work, 45o in the shade a little water and a limited diet. A family tragedy called me back to the UK again and I went to live in Cambridge.
At my interview for charge nurse in the Genito-Medical Clinic at Addenbrookes Hospital the imperious Nursing Officer said ‘How can you work as a charge nurse when you have never been a staff nurse?!’. I explained that I thought running two rural medical centres in difficult circumstances for over four years might have given me a few skills but as I wasn’t following due process she was unconvinced. However I did get the job thanks to an enthusiastic young consultant who thought I might do.
During my time we developed a rape crisis drop in centre and had an open door policy for all gay men. We were hearing about a new disease that seemed to be killing people in San Francisco. As HIV/AIDS crept over the pond the gay communities in Cambridge asked me to help them with a helpline. I wrote a proposal to the Director of Public Health and the Cambridge AIDS programme was born. As Director I supported the needle exchange programme and HIV testing and we started an AIDS education centre and a helpline. I was once again back in listening mode as I trained the helpline workers in telephone counselling.
After three years and a lot of sitting at dear friend’s bedsides as they died I decided I needed a break. The community work we had been doing was picked up by the Global Programme on AIDS at the WHO and I went to Geneva to start writing training manuals for young people on HIV/AIDS and sexual health. A chance meeting with a friend led me to develop this work at the Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies and we worked with young people from 145 countries to make sure the training manuals met their needs.
During my time in Geneva I travelled back briefly each term to Keele University and did an MBA in Health management so by the time I left Geneva I was able to begin a 15 year freelance career in community development, HIV/AIDS and reproductive health working nationally in the UK and internationally.
I was getting itchy feet again and also missed India and by chance my husband was offered a job with the Department for International Development in Delhi so we packed up our four year old and ten month old daughters and all went to live in Delhi for four years where I carried on my freelance job, visited Kabliji Hospital and set up a telephone helpline for a Cancer Charity CanSupport (please give generously). I was so happy to be back in India and our girls flourished in the sunshine.
We returned to the UK in 1999. Our girls have grown up in Devon and have now gone on to live their lives. I freelanced for a while and then joined the teaching team at the new Peninsula Medical School postgraduate institute. During this time, as I was sitting on the floor doing cutting and sticking with our children, a friend discussed with me the possibility of doing a PhD and within no time I enrolled at the joint Universities of Exeter and Plymouth. I was interested in the endless use of the term ‘psychosocial care’ which was bandied about by both government and academics as some kind of a cure all and so returning to my first interest in listening as a treatment I decided to try to define it for people with long-term conditions, specifically MS.
I spent the next three years post PhD in the Neurological Research Group at Tamar Science Park working with Professor John Zajicek on the qualitative aspects of a NIHR grant. Our work was to interview people with progressive MS to explore their experience pre-diagnosis and to try to develop measures which might more accurately identify deterioration.
Serendipity struck again when I met Professor Janet Richardson in one of the University’s café’s. She discussed her work in sustainability and the potential effects of climate change on health service resources and there I was happy to change tack again, return to a School of Nursing and Midwifery, and work on an issue which is world changing and potentially devastating to the way we will provide health services in the future. It is exciting and challenging work not least of all because there is a need to convince people of its importance. However I consider myself incredibly lucky to be working in a university that has sustainability as a key performance indicator, is first in the People and Planet League, and has a research institute (Institute of Sustainable Solutions Research) devoted to bringing people together to carry out ground breaking research. We also have an equally world renowned pedagogical approach to education for sustainable development (Centre for Sustainable Futures). The team there helped me with my steep learning curve. Our research has won a Green Gown Award for innovation and we are currently working with three other European countries to develop training materials for nurses to learn about sustainability.
So going back to the question ‘is there a comprehensible thread to my CV?’ I have been fortunate to be in the right place at the right time but I have taken every opportunity offered and developed it to make it my own. Nursing is one of the most adaptable professions and provided nurses are open for adventure their skills can be used to the benefit of people with specific illnesses or to develop patient/person centred approaches to the delivery of health care.