‘Bringing a bit of kudos back to Colchester'

Emma Sweeney has been appointed president elect of the UK Oncology Nursing Society

Macmillan head of cancer nursing at Colchester Hospital University NHS Foundation Trust Emma Sweeney (pictured) says she is excited by her appointment as the UK Oncology Nursing Society's (UKONS) president elect, and that it is good to be ‘bringing a bit of kudos back to Colchester’.

Her appointment, which she takes up at the UKONS conference in November, consolidates Colchester’s position as a cancer centre, she says.

The endorsement is a big deal considering the trust’s recent past. It was placed in special measures in 2013 when the Care Quality Commission (CQC) expressed concerns that staff were under pressure by managers to manipulate cancer waiting times to meet government targets.

Police investigation

An inquiry found no evidence of systematic data manipulation and, after a two-year police investigation ending last summer, the trust was found to have committed no criminal offences.

Yet the allegations have cast a shadow. Ms Sweeney mentions the cancer helpline set up in 2013 for patients and the public to report concerns to staff. ‘You could see in their eyes what a difficult time that had been,’ she says.

Going forward

Ms Sweeney’s role was created in reforms designed to improve services and rebuild public trust. ‘On my radar when I started was that the trust had gone through a significant period. How could I drive the team forward? They had been through so much. It was time to get that fine balance of recognising, while not having been part of it, what they’d been through.

‘It has been a passionate concern for me that we have learned. It has enabled us to tighten our processes for tracking patients and monitoring them through their pathway. We can reassure ourselves that systems are in place and tell patients and families that we are doing everything that we can do.’

Lessons learned

At the 2015 UKONS conference Sean MacDonnell, the trust’s medical director at the time of the CQC report, gave a presentation on the lessons learned. ‘That was a proud moment for me,’ says Ms Sweeney. ‘We were open, honest and transparent about the review findings and we could share that at a national level as well as a local level.’

Ms Sweeney took her nursing diploma at Barts 20 years ago after flirting with becoming a classical musician and attending performing arts college. ‘Then I thought “gosh, no, this is really not for me”.’

Her paternal grandmother had managed the laundry at the Royal London Hospital in the 1970s and 1980s. ‘When I was a child the laundry made me a bespoke nurse’s uniform: a cape, apron, hat and uniform in the days when uniform services were on site. Clearly she talked about her grandchildren a lot!’

Patients' experiences

At first Ms Sweeney felt out of her depth on the wards. ‘I was very, very scared. I wondered “How do I strike up a conversation with someone who is sick?” I always use that as an example to students as now that’s where I feel most comfortable, gaining patients’ experiences.’

She advises junior colleagues to ‘remember why you always wanted to be a nurse, hold that close to your heart’. She tells them that despite her unpromising start, quitting performing arts college when she realised she’d never make it to the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, thanks to nursing she has a BSc and MSc and feels that ‘the world’s my oyster’.

After training she worked on a surgical ward at St Thomas’ Hospital in London. ‘As a surgical nurse I thought you just fixed people, they go home and the world goes back to normal. Little did I know. I ended up working on an upper gastrointestinal surgical ward with lots of cancer patients. That’s where my love of oncology came from.’

Ms Sweeney says she feels ‘privileged to be able to build relationships with people facing potentially a life-limiting illness’.

Making time

A crucial skill is giving ‘the illusion that you’ve got time even if you have got a million and one other jobs, so people don’t feel they can’t call on you because you are too busy’. Making sure that you keep your promises is also vital, she says. ‘If you say “I’m going to buy you an ice lolly because your mouth is dry as a result of chemotherapy”, make sure that you do.’

For the future she believes she may need to gain experience outside cancer care to prepare her for a more senior nursing leadership role in an acute hospital. Alternatively, post-doctoral work is an option.

‘A lot of the work I do here warrants further academic study,’ she says. ‘After my MSc I said never again, but it’s starting to feel like the right thing to do. I’m determined – once I’ve made a decision I will get out there and do what I need to.’

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