My job

'Saving lives isn't just about resuscitation, it's about helping vulnerable patients to access the right support'

Consultant nurse in emergency care Sarah Charters says mental health is one of the biggest challenges facing EDs

Consultant nurse in emergency care Sarah Charters says mental health is one of the biggest challenges facing EDs

Picture: Chris Balcombe

What is your job?

I am a consultant nurse in emergency care; lead for mental health and vulnerable adults in the emergency department (ED) of Southampton General Hospital; and also a flight nursing officer with the RAF Reserves.

Why did you become an emergency nurse?

I worked as a nursing student in the ED of Queen Alexandra Hospital, Portsmouth in the autumn of 1987 – the year of the Great Storm. I was entranced by the team spirit, the can-do attitude of the nurses, the mix of patients and the opportunity to help people in crisis. I knew then that I would be an emergency nurse.

How did you progress through your emergency career?

My first post in emergency care was at Guy’s Hospital in London in 1990. While working there I completed the nine-month English National Board 199 accident and emergency nursing course before travelling for six months around Asia, Australia and New Zealand.

I returned to work in an ED in Gloucester. I then moved to an ED in Derby before becoming a junior sister and practice development nurse in an ED in Harrogate.

I also became an instructor in advanced life support and advanced paediatric life support. In 2000 I moved to Southampton, and have remained there ever since – initially as an operational senior sister, then emergency nurse practitioner before joining the first trainee consultant nurse programme. I undertook academic programmes in Southampton and Bournemouth and started my current post in 2010.

I joined the RAF Reserves in 1990, three months after I registered as a nurse. I was called in to work during the first and second Gulf Wars in 1991 and 2003, and twice in Afghanistan, in 2007 and 2010.

In my latest stint I was the nurse in charge of the ED at the then Camp Bastion, during its busiest phase in the Afghan conflict. My NHS and military careers have always complemented each other.

What have you learned in each role?

I have learned a lot by working in different EDs and the military – observing and being part of different cultures and leadership teams. I have learned that empathy and professional kindness are the most important qualities of an emergency nurse and that inspirational leadership can achieve great things for our patients.

I have also learned that saving lives is not just about resuscitation, it is also about helping patients to access the right support for issues relating to their mental health, substance use, homelessness and personal safety within relationships.

Being an emergency nurse is exciting. It offers you a multitude of ways to excel, particularly if you are passionate about your special area of interest and hardworking.

What is your greatest challenge in your job?

The multi-agency mental health crisis pathway is under-resourced. This has a negative effect on service users and staff of all the agencies who contribute to this pathway.

What achievement makes you most proud?

I am most proud of creating the vulnerable adult support team. The team provides outstanding person-centred care for some of our most complex, vulnerable and disadvantaged patients.

What advice would you give a nurse starting out in an emergency department?

First, observe the nurses working alongside you. Hopefully all will be very good, but some will be outstanding. Ask yourself what makes them outstanding – can you adopt any of their ways?

Second, always ask yourself, ‘What can I do to make my department’s service better?’

Finally, remember that the greatest gift anyone can have in life is to be loved and nurtured by their family – and many of the troubled patients you meet in ED may have never experienced this.

What is likely to affect emergency nurses most over the next 12 months?

Mental health – I would imagine that most EDs need to review and improve the service they provide to patients who present in a mental health crisis, and now is the time to do it.


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