Summer 2016 marks 30 years since I qualified as a nurse. In those heady last few weeks at Sheffield City Polytechnic I was caught up in the rush of finishing my last placement, celebrating completing a 4 year degree (especially the dissertation!) and experiencing the relief of getting my first staff nurse post. The last thing on my mind was considering what impact I might make or where my career would lead me. But as I sit here, 30 years older (if not necessarily wiser) – it seems an ideal time to contemplate these issues and reflect “why DO I do what I do?”
In the beginning, when I started my degree, this was something I often had to respond to and was simple to answer. I wanted to do a job that made a difference, that and also enabled me to channel my personality. I always loved learning, reading and questioning: By the time I was 18 I had evolved from the 11 year old ‘bookworm’ (reading 6 books a week) to an academic, knowledge seeking student. Conversely, my family will also tell you that same ‘bookworm’ was the proverbial ‘soft touch’ with an overdeveloped sense of responsibility for putting things right and an acute awareness of how some people had fewer lifechances than others – and that wasn’t ‘fair’. So from an early age, the need to learn and have an outlet for my desire to improve things for others was set. My fascination for the human body as a complex physical and psychological machine drew me towards nursing and healthcare. Being accepted on one of the few nursing degree programmes in 1982 was key – it provided the critical challenge and academic rigor to meet my continuous thirst for knowledge. Four years later I emerged with a 2:1 degree and a nursing qualification. I felt I had finally fulfilled my need to learn as well as ‘do my bit’ for those in my care.
But I was wrong.
Far from being the end – nursing marked a beginning of not only a long career, continuously balancing the scientific and caring aspects of my nature, but also opening up a range of opportunities which taught me much about myself (and still do).
I write this now as one of the few Black female Professors of Nursing in the UK. How we identify ourselves makes a statement that ultimately impact on ourselves, our chosen profession and how both are shaped in the future. Arguments have raged in the press, on hospital wards and among the public as to whether nurses are less caring now due to academic status than in the past….My choice of words to describe my role are personally and professionally important. Each word represents what I believe is the essence of “why I do what I do”. They reflect the experiences that have shaped my career sand ultimately keep me striving to do more.
Recent and past experiences, (my own, within the profession of nursing and the wider world) have reinforced for me the importance of knowing yourself and your purpose. Events in the USA, UK and elsewhere over the last few weeks remind me of the importance of retaining pride in my Black female identity and embracing the value of diversity in the 21st century. As a student nurse I was acutely aware of myself as the only black student, not least when patients refused to be touched by ‘that black nurse’. As qualified nurse academic I have since travelled to countries and cities I never imagined I would, working with national and international governments to inform policy, education and practice developments. I have also been fortunate to work locally with voluntary groups and individuals to ensure the voices of the less powerful are not ‘silenced’ in the push for change in the face of economic constraints. In these arenas my identity has at times been challenging to others but I believe my experiences have helped me to engage with and reflect the diversity of experiences at crucial points.
As nurses, our role is to ensure high quality equitable health care for all, irrespective of race, creed or social standing – over the years since my qualification, there have been periodic reminders (Mid –Staffs, Winterbourne View to name a few) that this has not always happened and nursing has at times born the brunt of the backlash from a disappointed public. These negative experiences are counterbalanced by positive experiences such as the unveiling of the Mary Seacole statue, last month, the first to a named Black Woman in England signaling not only a landmark for nursing, but on a personal level 12 years of fundraising and campaigning. My position as a clinical academic professor of nursing working in a university affords me the priviledge of shaping the future workforce through work with students as well as supporting frontline nurses in evidencing the unique and essential contribution we make to health care. Only last week my pride in the value and potential of nursing for leading change was reflected in the ideas, enthusiasm and innovation of frontline nurses in the urology outpatient department at the Royal Hallamshire Hospital, Sheffield.
These nurses epitomise the answer to the question – Why do I do what I do – because the Science AND Art of nursing is important – without both we fail to evidence the work nurses do to reduce suffering and improve the experiences of people accessing healthcare. Nurses are critical, reflective leaders, adding value to health services for people trying to manage their conditions alongside other aspects of their lives. I am a nurse, I am Black, female and proud. I cannot reduce my drive to prioritizing either the academic, ‘science’ or caring ‘Art’ of my work. They are personally, professionally and contextually bound.
In me and through my work, they are one.