My job

Charity abseil is my way to face my fears – and honour the NHS

Former health visitor Sue Smith is taking on a daring challenge to mark a career milestone

Former health visitor Sue Smith is taking on a daring challenge to mark a career milestone

Sue Smith at the Evelina Children's Hospital, where she volunteers as an honorary chaplain.

Former health visitor Sue Smith will be marking 60 years since she started training as a nurse with a daring feat – abseiling 160 feet down the front of St Thomas’ Hospital in London.

Ms Smith’s efforts will raise funds for Evelina London Children’s Hospital, part of Guy’s and St Thomas’ NHS Foundation Trust, where she now works as a volunteer honorary chaplain.

The draw of health visiting

After starting her training aged 18 at Westminster Hospital in 1959, Ms Smith became a state registered nurse (SRN), following in the footsteps of a beloved aunt who had been a flying officer and nursing sister in Princess Mary’s Royal Air Force Nursing Service during the second world war.

After working as a community clinic nurse, she realised health visiting was her passion. From the early 1980s, after qualifying as a health visitor, Ms Smith worked in the Croydon and South Norwood areas. Seeking more of an inner city experience, she then moved to West Lambeth Health Authority in south London.

‘When you knock on a door you never know what you’re going to find’

Sue Smith, former health visitor

‘I saw babies when they were ten days old as the paediatric liaison health visitor,’ she says. ‘Between 2004 and 2011, when I was working in the Grenfell Tower area, it was extremely varied. I was visiting bankers in beautiful houses in Notting Hill one day and young girls living in flats with many children the next.

Sue Smith in 1959, the year she
began her nurse training.

‘When you knock on a door you never know what you’re going to find,’ she adds. ‘I remember going to one wealthy woman who’d had her fourth child. She had a nanny and you would have thought she had everything.

‘But I listened in a sensitive way and she told me about her post-natal depression. As a nurse it’s important not to just tick boxes but to look out for certain signs.’

Evolution of care in the NHS

Ms Smith has seen many changes over the years, and remembers vividly when pioneering cardiothoracic surgeon Charles Drew, who worked at the hospital where she was studying to be an SRN, developed a way of cooling a patient’s body down by putting it in a hypothermic state to perform open heart surgery.

‘Now at the Evelina, there are babies with hearts the size of walnuts being operated on,’ she says. ‘I found nursing people with a tracheostomy was a bit scary, but now each week I see parents of half a dozen children learning how to change their tubes.

‘Many people don’t really realise how wonderful the NHS is. It keeps so many people alive. When I’m an old lady, I may have to wait for a few hours in a corridor on a trolley, but that’s a small price to pay for what the NHS does.’

Sue’s tips for work-life balance

  • Always listen to what your patient is saying, as well as observing their vital signs. Listening is caring, and caring is the fundamental quality of every good nurse
  • Take every opportunity to learn, both formally and informally, but never be afraid to admit if you don't know something
  • Have a colleague who you trust and who you can talk to about concerns and ask the ‘silly’ questions – things you think you should know but are ashamed to ask. Do the same for them
  • Have a relaxing interest outside of work, to balance the intensity of your role


‘Volunteering is a privilege’

After retirement in 2011, and a spell as a volunteer for Silver Line, a confidential helpline for older people, things changed again for Ms Smith when she heard Mia Holborn, hospitaller and chaplaincy team leader at Guy's and St Thomas’, speak at a church in 2015.

‘Her job sounded really interesting. I’m an Anglican by background and decided to do the training course for volunteers to work as part of the chaplaincy team,’ says Ms Smith. ‘Evelina Children’s Hospital has its own chaplain but they said I could work there because of my health visitor background.

‘It is such a privilege. If people don’t want to talk that’s fine, I’m just there to be supportive and a listening ear when needed.’

The chaplaincy team, which is made up of people of many different faiths and beliefs, meet monthly and have reflective practice sessions with other members of the team if there is a situation they are concerned about.

Sue Smith in 1962.

Facing my fears

It was through a poster at Evelina London Children’s Hospital, which celebrates its 150th anniversary this year, that Ms Smith learned about the annual St Thomas’ Abseil, which takes place on 10 May, two days before International Nurses Day.

‘My abseil is scheduled for 6pm and a couple of my grandsons may be there to cheer their mad grandmother on,’ she says.

Ms Smith has already tried on the abseil harness and has been doing squats in preparation with a friend, a health visitor who runs ultra-marathons. ‘I have been overwhelmed by the support for what I’m doing from all areas of my life, including nurses I’ve known for 60 years,’ she says.

‘I hate heights, my knees go weak if I look over a cliff, but I’ve had a great life and worked for the NHS for a lot of it. I’m not young anymore, but if I’m going to face my fears I might as well do it outside a hospital.’

    Petra Kendall-Raynor is a health journalist

    To read more about Sue and to make a donation, click here to access her fundraising page

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