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Talent and dedication: RCNi Nurse Awards student finalists hold key to nursing’s future

From tackling mental health issues in young people to supporting victims of modern slavery and improving the care of patients with Parkinson’s, this year’s RCNi Nurse Awards saw some outstanding projects from nursing students. Lynne Pearce meets the Andrew Parker Student Nurse Award finalists.
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From tackling mental health issues in young people to supporting victims of modern slavery and improving the care of patients with Parkinsons, this years RCNi Nurse Awards saw some outstanding projects from nursing students vying for the award sponsored by the estate of RCN activist Andrew Parker. Lynne Pearce meets the finalists

Zoe Butler, winner

When a young girl who was part of a local theatre group took her own life, Zoe Butler knew she could not stand by and watch as her friends and colleagues struggled to cope.

It was such a massive shock to the community, says Ms Butler, who was then embarking on her nursing degree at the University of Cumbria. People just didnt

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From tackling mental health issues in young people to supporting victims of modern slavery and improving the care of patients with Parkinson’s, this year’s RCNi Nurse Awards saw some outstanding projects from nursing students vying for the award sponsored by the estate of RCN activist Andrew Parker. Lynne Pearce meets the finalists

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At the awards night (left to right): Zoe Butler, Louise Cahill, Lorraine Ramnath,
Kirsty Killiard and Tanya Marlow. Picture: Barney Newman

 

Zoe Butler, winner

zoe

When a young girl who was part of a local theatre group took her own life, Zoe Butler knew she could not stand by and watch as her friends and colleagues struggled to cope. 

‘It was such a massive shock to the community,’ says Ms Butler, who was then embarking on her nursing degree at the University of Cumbria. ‘People just didn’t know how to react. I wasn’t prepared to let them go through it alone.’

At the time, she was volunteering with the Brewery Arts Youth Theatre in Kendal and the Crew – a group of young people accessing child and adolescent mental health services (CAMHS) – helping them to find coping mechanisms through creative writing.

‘When the groups started to see it as mental well-being, and that you need to look after your mental health in the same way as your physical health, there was a turning point’

Zoe Butler

‘I took a step back and realised that I had one group who wanted to share their experiences of what it was like to have a mental illness, and another group who wanted to understand much more about it,’ says Ms Butler. ‘I had a lightbulb moment and thought, let’s bring the two together.’   

Through talking to each other, the young people began to understand much more. ‘The perception of mental health is always negative – it’s about illness,’ says Ms Butler. ‘But when the groups started to see it as mental well-being, and that you need to look after your mental health in the same way as your physical health, there was a turning point.’ 

From the workshops, powerful stories began to emerge. ‘They were told with such passion,’ says Ms Butler. ‘I thought, we can’t end the project here.’ With help from a colleague, they created 40 monologues, looking at different aspects of mental health.

Nationwide resource

After several months of seeking funding, Ms Butler achieved success with a local charity and the county council, enabling some of the stories to be filmed. 

The end product is a DVD educational resource, which can be used by all schools in Cumbria to improve young people’s knowledge and understanding of mental health, encouraging them to open up and share their own feelings and experiences. Ms Butler is now working on a package of support to help those involved in leading the discussions, including school nurses and teachers. 

‘When you’re talking about emotional issues, you can feel isolated if someone discloses something difficult,’ she says. Her aim is for it to eventually become a nationwide resource, used as part of the national curriculum. 

Lease of life

‘Being involved in this work has developed me as a nurse,’ says Ms Butler, who takes up her first post in orthopaedics this autumn. ‘I’m able to empathise with my patients, and understand there are things we don’t think about that are worrying them.’  

But her real reward has been in the impact the project has had on those who have taken part. ‘Their responses really touched me,’ she says. ‘At the beginning, many had low self-esteem and no aspirations for what they might do after school. But afterwards, they were saying they wanted to go to university and be involved in other things. They had a new lease of life.’

 

Louise Cahill, highly commended

louise

As a Red Cross volunteer, handing over a basic hygiene pack to a woman who had been a slave was a moment Louise Cahill describes as ‘world stopping’. 

‘She told me she was the happiest she could remember being,’ says Ms Cahill, who has just completed her nursing studies at the University of Hertfordshire. ‘She explained that no matter how bad her situation was now, it was always better than her past. It was a profound experience for me.’

Following the encounter, Ms Cahill began investigating modern slavery and human trafficking. ‘I just couldn’t believe this was something we seemed to know so little about,’ she recalls. Eventually she became a volunteer with an organisation that directly supported women who had been sexually exploited.

‘I saw that you could make such a difference to someone in the moment when they think everything is gone’

Louise Cahill

Her charity work, including being an emergency medical responder, inspired her decision to become a nurse. ‘I saw that you could make such a difference to someone in the moment when they think everything is gone,’ says Ms Cahill.

As a nursing student, she often discussed her interest in human trafficking with other students and healthcare colleagues, explaining the key signs that might point to someone having been trafficked. 

It soon became clear that even experienced healthcare professionals lacked the knowledge to identify and support this vulnerable group of patients. ‘Everyone was so interested and occasionally someone would say they had seen a patient who fitted what I was talking about,’ says Ms Cahill. ‘But they’d obviously not had the information to know what they were looking for and what to do if they had suspicions.’   

Training session

In 2016, she entered a poster in a competition for the London Network of Nurses and Midwives Homelessness Group conference, winning first place. Her entry outlined how nursing students could play a vital role in helping to identify and support potential victims of human trafficking. Since then she has written a training session for students, which she has delivered to universities around the country, alongside other training sessions targeted specifically at midwives and front-line staff. 

More recently she co-authored the Modern Slavery Wheel, a tool funded by NHS England to support healthcare staff. She is currently researching what staff working in emergency departments, maternity, outpatients and sexual health understand about trafficking, including whether procedures are robust enough. 

Overlooked group

‘It’s a lot of hard work, and a huge commitment,’ says Ms Cahill. ‘But it’s an entire group of people who are overlooked. As a health service, we should be passionate about those that need us the most.’  

She is now looking for her first nursing post in emergency care, and in the future would like to become a specialist nurse in human trafficking and modern slavery. ‘It doesn’t exist at present but we’re in desperate need of one, considering the high number of cases we’re starting to see,’ says Ms Cahill, citing research that shows a significant number of victims have had contact with the NHS but were not identified. 

‘I’ve always been a powerful advocate and this is one of the most important weapons in the nurse’s arsenal,’ she says. ‘Using our voice for the benefit of someone can be one of the best things we do.’

 

Kirsty Killiard, finalist

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During her placement on a forensic learning disability ward, Kirsty Killiard noticed there was nothing formal in place to highlight how often patients might be using medicines ‘as needed’, or PRN, to manage symptoms of their mental illness. 

‘On previous mental health placements, I’d seen documentation and monitoring aids being used,’ says Ms Killiard, who has just completed her degree at the University of Dundee. ‘They helped staff to measure how often patients needed PRN medication and its effectiveness.’

The ward where she was working was for legally detained male adults under 65, with varying degrees of learning disability. More than half also had a mental illness, such as schizophrenia.

‘There’s a big element of being a newcomer on the ward, so you have a fresh pair of eyes’

Kirsty Killiard

‘There’s a big element of being a newcomer on the ward, so you have a fresh pair of eyes,’ says Ms Killiard. After talking to senior staff, she led the initiation of a new system that uses stickers, drawing attention to any underlying trends or patterns.

‘It will improve patient care, especially in terms of early intervention,’ she says. ‘It’s an easy visual prompt to help review how patients are getting on, showing anything untoward that’s slipping under the radar.’

Having a supportive team was invaluable, she believes. ‘They embraced change, and to have a team that was so trusting of me was confidence inspiring,’ says Ms Killiard.

More drive

‘Through the close working relationship I’d built up, I never felt that I would be shot down. Without that it would have been a much more nerve-wracking conversation.’

The initiative has been such a success it has been adopted by another ward. ‘I feel like I was just doing my job,’ says Ms Killiard, who starts her first nursing post in September, working in acute mental health assessments.

‘I had an idea that I thought could work, and it did. I’ve always been forthcoming but it’s helped to encourage that within me,’ she says. ‘I have more drive and confidence in my ability to take things to the next level. Now, I wouldn’t think twice about questioning how things are done – and how we can make it better. I’ll always be looking for that.’

 

Tanya Marlow, finalist

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Nasogastric (NG) tubes are often used in children’s nursing, but inserting them for the first time can be stressful.

‘Practising for the first time on a real patient put me under a lot of pressure,’ says Tanya Marlow, who was a nursing student at the University of Central Lancashire in Preston. ‘I felt I would have benefited from having an initial go using a doll or dummy to get the feel for it, before trying on a moving and crying baby in front of their parents.’

Asked by a lecturer whether she would like to teach a skill at the first-year students’ preparation-for-practice session, she chose inserting an NG tube. A transparent dummy with an oesophagus, trachea and movable epiglottis helped her to demonstrate measuring and inserting the tubes, with students able to practise the procedure in a safe and controlled environment, under supervision.

‘I would have benefited from having an initial go using a doll or dummy to get the feel for it, before trying on a moving and crying baby in front of their parents’

Tanya Marlow

‘Teaching was daunting at first as I didn’t have much experience,’ Ms Marlow recalls. ‘I felt apprehensive that the students might not engage, or ask a question I couldn’t answer.’

But the session was a success, with students saying they had enjoyed it, found it informative and that it had alleviated their own fears about performing the skill on their first placement.

‘Learning from another student felt informal, giving them the chance to ask questions they might not have felt comfortable asking a mentor or lecturer,’ says Ms Marlow.

The experience encouraged her to facilitate more teaching sessions, taking on the role of a nursing student ambassador, and demonstrating clinical skills to prospective students during open days and the university’s science festival. ‘It’s also enhanced my confidence when I’m speaking to large groups of people,’ says Ms Marlow, who took up her first nursing post as a children’s nurse in September.

Eventually she hopes to pursue a career in clinical education. ‘This has been valuable experience and a sound starting point,’ she says.

 

Lorraine Ramnath, finalist

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Seeing the devastating effects of a delay in receiving medication for a patient with Parkinson’s disease stayed with Lorraine Ramnath, eventually inspiring her to act.

‘It’s important that medication is given at exactly the right time,’ says Ms Ramnath, who graduated from the Open University last November and is now a cardiac nurse.

‘In this case, the patient had missed a couple of doses,’ she says. ‘He was in decline and not able to communicate properly. He couldn’t feed himself and needed help to wash and dress. But once he had his correct medication I could appreciate the difference in him. It stayed with me.’

‘I’ve become passionate about working with this group of patients, who need more understanding’

Lorraine Ramnath

Asked to explore a service improvement as part of her nursing studies, she went further, designing and implementing a new Parkinson’s passport at her hospital trust. Held by the patient, this shares important information about their treatment, detailing their medication and individual needs.

Alongside helping patients to retain their independence, the passport – coupled with some extra training – has helped staff learn much more about the condition.

‘Sometimes you can go through your nursing career and not come across a patient with Parkinson’s, which means there can be a lack of awareness even among professionals,’ explains Ms Ramnath. ‘I’ve become passionate about working with this group of patients, who need more understanding.’


Lynne Pearce is a freelance health writer 


The RCN and Guidelines for Nurses sponsored the
Andrew Parker Student Nurse Award at the RCNi Nurse Awards 2017

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