Careers

‘Taking on a lone position has been a challenge. I love it’

Award-winning Penelope Clark moved her family 800 miles to take up a post as the only community liaison nurse for learning disabilities and autism on the remote Shetland Islands

Award-winning Penelope Clark moved her family 800 miles to take up a post as the only community liaison nurse for learning disabilities and autism on the remote Shetland Islands


Penelope Clark moved with her family to the Shetland Islands
Picture: Dave Donaldson

As the only community liaison nurse (learning disabilities and autism) on the Shetland Islands – the subarctic archipelago of Scotland that lies north east of Great Britain – Penelope Clark uses ferries to reach some of her clients and can spot whales on the drive to the supermarket.

The 800-mile move with her husband and two children from Wiltshire in March last year has seen her take on the autonomous nursing role with passion and zeal.

‘I looked at it as a challenge, it is a lone position with just me,’ says Ms Clark, whose success in the role was recognised in March by winning the outstanding healthcare professional award at the 2018 Autism Professional Awards, run by the National Autistic Society.

‘I am a big promoter of person-centred care and want to get to know clients as well as possible’

‘I work with adults and children, which is interesting as in England it is generally either one or the other.’

Long waits for diagnosis

When she arrived, there had been no learning disability community nurse in place for two years and there were long waits for diagnosis.

Among the changes she implemented was to add the care of people with autism to her title – and she changed the referral process so people can refer to her directly, cutting down waiting times and anxiety for affected families.

Ms Clark, who previously worked in inpatient settings, implemented regular learning disability and autism meetings, bringing professionals and third sector workers together to create a multi professional team. This  increased cross sector working, ensuring better communication, raising awareness and supporting better outcomes.

‘When I arrived there were 17 on the case load, and now I have 89, mainly adults’

The role involved working with a ranges of services including supported living and out reach, day centres, respite services, other professionals such as children’s nurses, schools and social workers and, of course, individuals and their families.


Ms Clark has now moved into 
private practice which she says
enables her to be more innovative
Picture: Dave Donaldson 

Inundated with emails

‘When I arrived there were 17 on the case load, and this rose to 89, mainly adults,’ she says. ‘At the beginning it was quiet, as no one knew I was here. Once my email got out and I became inundated.

‘The service progressed so much. I am a big promoter of person-centred care and want to get to know clients as well as possible. I have a brilliant relationship with all of them.’

Her caseload is scattered geographically – the 23,000-strong population of Shetland are spread across 16 inhabited islands. She left the NHS in July and has now set up her own private practice which she says enables her to have the flexibility and freedom to work outside the 8am-4pm constraints and be more innovative such as using services users as experts. 'I felt sad leaving the NHS but I wanted to do so much more,' she says.  

Winters are long and tough, with many more hours of darkness than in England. In the peak of summer it is light from 3.30am until midnight. But working with an island community brings many benefits, she says.

Pulling together

People are committed to helping each other, pulling together and working for each other in ways she has never experienced elsewhere.

‘It is such a beautiful and strange place,’ she says. ‘There are always festivals, music and events going on. On the way to the supermarket I can see seals and whales.’

When she phones people up from different services, they are eager to help in any way they can. ‘There is a genuine nature here and people  rally round,’ she says.

‘It is such a beautiful and strange place’

‘I often think about how I would find it if I moved back to the UK mainland. I would find it difficult. Here I can just ring people up and they are so committed to helping.

‘At home in England, people would finish and go home and they were done. But I know I am staying here for good. I love Shetland.’

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