I can't speak for all universities but in the final year of my training I was feeling horribly unprepared for the real world of nursing. It wasn't the hospital nurses' fault; most wards were understaffed and just providing patient care was enough of a challenge. Training the daunted young students was an extra strain and the lack of mentoring resulted in me having no confidence in essential basic skills. In addition, some nurses were perfectly adequate at caring for patients but weren't great teachers. I remember one attempting to show me female catheterisation but she got so flustered by me watching her that she repeatedly failed to find the patient's bladder and just gave up.

To combat my lack of knowledge, I requested as many placements in the community as I could. This meant that I had a huge amount of one-to-one time with experienced nurses. I'd present them with a list of skills that I felt I was lacking, and would then practice them under their supervision until I was ready to go it alone. It was the best thing I did in my whole degree and I got to know one particular district nurse very well. Her name was Rita. She was a vibrant Liverpudlian who had bright red hair like I once had. I loved working with her. She had fabulous rapport with her patients, knew each one individually and always did her absolute best to care for their every need. She was funny, loud and encouraging but most of all was excellent at dealing with sad situations. If a person with a terminal illness cried, she'd let them cry and would console them sensitively but without being patronising. If a person needed care that wasn't really in her remit, she still gave it. We once visited Mary, a lonely and frail lady who needed a leg dressing but who was also struggling with self-care. I could see that Rita's heart ached for this tiny sweet lady and, even though it meant that we might not finish our shift on time, we stayed to wash Mary's hair and made her feel better just by helping her get clean.

I spent months with Rita. We regularly visited a cheerful little old lady, whose surname was Williams. Her beautiful golden Labrador was her best friend and it always made me laugh that she had named him Robbie. We drove all over the town caring for people and the work was always varied. We saw patients of all ages, people recovering from surgery, diabetics, the elderly and the terminally ill. Rita had unending patience with me in every situation. If I wanted to learn how to catheterise, she would show me once and then say, "Come on then, the rest are all down to you". She would let me watch her undo a dressing and would then have me washing the patient's legs before putting the new one on by myself. I learned about insulin levels, how to take blood glucose samples, administer all sorts of injections, set up PEG feeds and take blood pressure (this is so much harder than it looks to begin with!), to name but a few. I owe so much to her as, without these placements, I would have felt as clueless at the end of my training as when I had just begun.

Working with Rita made me realise that I didn't want to work on hospital wards when I qualified. Even though my job with Ida had been a shock, I had got to know her and what she needed from me. The relationship building with patients continued with the residents in my first care home - like Kate. I wanted to know my patients like Rita did. Along with the district nursing placements, I also requested a lot of time in GP practices. I got to sit in appointments and get the same one-to-one teaching that was missing on the wards. I got to know Pippa, a practice nurse, and while we didn't develop the same closeness that I had with Rita, I owe her massively for the bulk of my career. I didn't know it at the time but I would spend many years in General Practice and she taught me more skills than I can list. Pippa had the same genuine care and regular contact with her patients as Rita and I knew that work somewhere in the community was what I wanted to pursue. What I am so grateful to both of these nurses for is that they had faith in me. They let me get completely involved in patient care and Pippa seemed completely comfortable with me removing sutures and staples, learning how to check a patient's asthma and diabetes, learning child immunisation schedules, watching smear tests and learning travel advice and all manner of other treatments. I also have to express huge gratitude to every patient who has ever let me observe their appointment, visit, assessment or even birth! They didn't have to say yes but without these kind people I would never have become the nurse that I am.

Once I had completed my degree and was waiting for my results and registration, I got a job with a care agency. I was also working as a waitress, which I had done all the way through my studies. I found the fun and social part of restaurant work light relief compared with nursing. It also meant that I got to know Lee Mead, who was a barman at the time but later became quite a celebrity in the UK! He heard that I had learnt ballet for eleven years and used to practice his dance lifts, holding me above his head in the bar! He was a real gent and I'm very happy for how his career has turned out. Anyway, the care agency placed me with a couple called Ron and Gerry. Gerry was a tiny lady whose MS was so advanced that she could no longer speak or move by herself and Ron was her utterly devoted husband. He was a big, strong man from the East End, who had a permanent frown and almost always had a cigarette in his hand. When I first met him I was petrified but, as a couple of shifts passed, I learned that his heart was much softer than his exterior. He could not have done more for Gerry. She had a state-of-the-art hydraulic bath and he was adamant that she should be helped into it every day. He bought her comfortable clothes, cooked all of her dinners from scratch and then liquidized them and was so sweet and affectionate to her even though she could reciprocate nothing but the look in her eyes. My job was to help him with her morning bath and then sit with Gerry and feed her lunch so that Ron could go out from about 10am until 4pm. I never knew quite what he did but I suspected it wasn't exactly above board. He told me stories about about fights with bikers and how he had hidden someone from the police in the car pit in his mechanics garage. He also told me that he could get me any perfume I liked. It wouldn't be boxed, but he could get it. Of course I never told anyone any of this for fear that he would hunt me down. I also felt so sad for him. He and Gerry had lost a son in a motorbike accident earlier in their life and, understandably, he had never got over this. It made him so proud that hundreds of fellow bikers had attended the funeral. Gerry had been unwell for a long time but his care and love for her was unfaltering. Deep down he had a good heart. He always had a tin of Roses in the kitchen that I was welcome to share with Gerry while he was out. I must have mentioned to him that my favourites were the caramels because on Christmas morning I opened a gift he had given me. It was a jar, hand decorated in red and gold, filled with Roses caramels. It was one of the most thoughtful presents I've ever received and I was so touched that he'd taken the time to make it for me.

At about this time, I received my results; I was very pleased with a 2:1 and started looking for work. In 2002, jobs were still advertised in the paper and I saw one looking for staff nurses in a small nursing home that also provided end of life care. Knowing that I didn't want to work on a ward, and seeing that the rate of pay was higher than the hospital anyway, I phoned, wondering if they'd even consider a newly-qualified nurse. The manager assured me that she would and, after an interview, I was offered the job. I told Ron, who had always understood that my work with him and Gerry was only short term, and he wished me well. The next year would teach me so much and I would meet characters that I will never ever forget...


  1. I absolutely love reading these! You have a real talent and your stories are fascinating. Hannah X


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