Why I chose to become a nurse – and why I choose to stay

Whether inspired by family, a chance encounter or a childhood dream, nurses reflect on their different routes into the profession and what it brings to their lives

Whether inspired by family, a chance encounter or a childhood dream, nurses reflect on their different routes into the profession and what it brings to their lives

  • A former RCN Nurse of the Year and others working in the NHS and elsewhere share the goals and inspirations that keep them going
  • Nurses explain how they changed careers, defied community stereotypes and followed in family members’ footsteps as they started out in the profession
  • Their stories explore the desire to help and serve and the joy of working in a role that is important to people
Picture: iStock

What makes someone want to be a nurse – and crucially, what makes them want to stay in the profession?

For some it’s a childhood ambition, for others a formative experience draws them to nursing as a career, while some say they simply fell into it by chance.

What motivates nurses to stay in the profession

Here, nurses from different specialties and at varying points in their careers explain why they chose the profession – and what motivates them to keep going.

‘I wanted to work directly with people, not in the background’

Ana Waddington, major trauma nurse coordinator/paediatric critical care outreach nurse at Barts Health NHS Trust, co-director and founder of YourStance, and RCN Nurse of the Year 2020

Ana Waddington at the Royal London Hospital Picture: Barney Newman

‘Healthcare runs in the family, so it was always in the background as I was growing up. But when I was at high school we had to do some community service hours and that introduced me to the whole concept of volunteering and helping people who were experiencing disadvantage. It really opened my eyes and I wanted to do something where I could help people – but I couldn’t figure out the way to do it.

‘I studied history and politics at SOAS (part of the University of London) then worked for the Teenage Cancer Trust. But it made me realise that I wanted to work directly with patients, not in the background – and that’s how I came to nursing.

Clinical outreach that is helping to prevent violent deaths

‘I started my career in the emergency department and realised quickly that my interest was trauma. I’ve worked with adults and children and I wanted to develop my skills to help people through their trauma journey. I combine the trauma coordinator role with the paediatric critical care outreach team to keep my clinical skills up.

‘My dream would be to establish this across all NHS trusts – it’s one of the things that keeps me doing what I do’

‘I started YourStance, a preventative educational project because a lot of young people were coming through our doors and dying from stab wounds or gunshot wounds, who may have survived if good, effective and simple bleed control had been applied at the scene before the ambulance arrived. I started developing workshops to train young people, bridging the gap between them and healthcare staff. Now we have 289 volunteer healthcare professionals on our database, all healthcare professionals, and we’ve run more than 97 workshops in four years. My dream would be to establish this across all NHS trusts – it’s one of the things that keeps me doing what I do.’

From London to Paris and New York to Manchester, nursing opens doors

Alison Woods

Alison Woods, breast cancer clinical nurse specialist, University College London Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust

‘My mum was an occupational therapy assistant and, as a child, I would see her coming home and she was always happy about her work. I decided to study adult nursing after seeing her joy and love of working in a caring profession.

‘The great thing about working as a clinical nurse specialist is that you can focus closely on one area and I knew I wanted to work in breast cancer from early on. I love that you can really get to know a patient – you’re there at the beginning, you’re there to pick up the pieces when things get difficult, and you can help them get through the whole stressful journey. And the good thing with breast cancer is that many of the patients do well, so although something terrible has happened, for most people there’s a sense of optimism as well.

The sense that you’re doing something valuable

‘I have worked in New York and Paris – nursing has opened so many doors for me. But I’m not sure I recognised when I was younger just how valuable nurses are. When I tell people I’m a clinical nurse specialist and I work in breast cancer, you always get the reaction that people feel you’re doing something valuable.

‘Many years ago when I worked in Manchester I went to see a comedian and he asked about people’s jobs and made jokes about them. When I said I was a nurse at the Christie cancer hospital, there was a moment of silence and he said “that’s amazing”. Then the audience started applauding and I just felt “wow”. I remember feeling that day that I was doing something special.’

A bold decision to switch careers

Chris Dlamini, senior lecturer in learning disability nursing, Teesside University

Chris Dlamini

‘It was a chance encounter with a child with learning disabilities that took me into nursing. I was working as a social worker with looked-after children and I met this child who was at a school where the teachers – although they were supportive – didn’t seem to understand what learning disabilities were. I was intrigued and started to read up on it.

‘Then I had a part-time job in a children’s home where there were children with learning disabilities and I decided I was going to make the switch and become a learning disability nurse.

‘I was about 30 and I even surprised myself, because I had never, not for one day, seen myself working as a nurse. I spent most of my childhood in Africa. I came from a nursing family, but none of the male relatives were nurses, so it was quite a bold decision.

‘I find myself encouraging men and boys to join nursing’

‘My mother and sister are nurses and they have been very supportive, and now I find myself encouraging other men and boys to join nursing.

‘There’s no greater honour than someone letting you into their life, and people with learning disabilities do this in the most graceful manner, giving you permission to enter their lives, to understand what’s going on with them, trusting you to help them. It gives you this power, knowing that you can make a difference in someone’s life, but the trust they place in me is such an honour – it’s a humbling experience, every day.’

A broken finger pointed me in the right direction

Maggi Bradley, general practice nurse and clinical nurse lead, Sefton Training Hub, Southport and Formby Health

Maggi Bradley

‘I’ve always wanted to look after people, from a very young age. When I was about 12, my sister broke her finger and we ended up in the emergency department. I remember vividly when I saw the sister on duty that this was where I wanted to end up. It was just about looking after people, making people feel better when they’re vulnerable. There’s nothing particularly magical about it – I just wanted to look after people.

‘I did general adult nursing and stayed in that for about ten years and went on to be a midwife. Then about 20 years ago, I became a practice nurse.

Developing trusting relationships with patients and students

‘I discovered when I was a midwife that my niche was really about developing a relationship with somebody – and that’s one of the things I love about practice nursing. It’s the best job; you see all sorts of people of different ages, different socioeconomic backgrounds, speaking different languages. You could start off with a baby in the morning and see an 80-year-old with cancer at the end of the day. When you call the person in, you never know what they’re going to tell you when they walk in the room, and that’s brilliant.

‘Practice nursing is the best job, you see all sorts of people... You could start off with a baby in the morning and see an 80-year-old with cancer at the end of the day’

Maggi Bradley, general practice nurse and clinical nurse lead

‘I also enjoy working with nursing students – I’m keen that they learn that the relationship you build up with the patient is fundamental to everything you achieve. They are the nurses of the future and you’ve got to invest in them. Hopefully I have something to pass on to them, and I learn a lot from them too.’

Nursing resonated with all my values and principles’

Rohit Sagoo, a children’s nurse currently studying for a PhD in public health at the University of Bedfordshire, founder and director of British Sikh Nurses, and winner of the leadership award at the RCN Nursing Awards 2021

‘I fell into nursing after a friend said she thought I’d be really good at it. That was 22 years ago, and I loved it. Nursing resonated with all my values and principles and I enjoy caring for people.

‘I did a placement in a nursery and fell in love with working with children. There were vulnerable children there who had been neglected and abused, and I felt there was an opportunity for me to do something different.

‘From a cultural perspective, I’m Sikh, I’m Punjabi and I’m South Asian, so it was pretty unheard of for a man like me to go into nursing, but I’ve always liked to be a pioneer, to do something away from the norm.

‘I’ve been working as a lecturer but I’ve taken a break from that now to do my PhD – after that, I’ll return to education or do something different within public health.

Rohit Sagoo carries out blood pressure test on Azad Singh at Gurdwara Sri Guru Singh Sabha temple in Hounslow Picture: Barney Newman

Public health mission that keeps on growing

‘I set up an organisation about six years ago called British Sikh Nurses, responding to the needs of the South Asian community. I realised there was lots we could do in terms of public health, for example, so I did health screening in a Sikh temple.

‘There were lots of South Asian people off the scale for body mass index (BMI) and pre-diabetes and hypertension was common. I wanted to see what nurses could achieve in health promotion in the South Asian community. I’ve also worked with NHS Blood and Transplant raising awareness of organ transplantation, and it has all snowballed from there.

‘My drive is to care for people, so whatever I’ve done, that ethos of nursing is still there, and it always will be.’

My grandmother’s real-life Call the Midwife tales steered me towards nursing

Kirsti Soanes, lead consultant advanced clinical practitioner, University Hospitals Birmingham NHS Foundation Trust

Kirsti Soanes

‘I’ve always wanted to be a nurse, although I did have a brief dalliance with wanting to be a travel agent because it seemed glamorous. But my grandma was a midwife and I’d grown up listening to her tales.

‘She’d literally “lived” Call the Midwife, working during the Blitz in London, on a bike in blackouts, and she had lots of stories, although I was the only one of her 24 grandchildren to go into nursing.

‘I qualified in 1991 at the time when it was quite hard to get a job as a nurse, so I moved to Liverpool and did a year in adult cardiothoracic medicine, but I realised how much I had liked working with children during my training. I applied to Great Ormond Street to do my children’s nurse training. I didn’t like living in London so went to work at the children’s hospital in Birmingham when I qualified. I’ve done all sorts of things since, but now I’m back in Birmingham.

‘I really like working with kids – they just make me laugh every day. I particularly enjoyed having day-to-day contact with families so I could build relationships with them. It’s a different skill in emergency departments because you’ve got to be able to make these connections really quickly.

‘I’ve always like emergency medicine because of the fast pace, and because you’re seeing everything from birth up to strapping 16-year-olds you’ve got to be quick on your feet.

‘My grandma gave me her silver belt buckle that she wore as a midwife and I used to wear it with pride. She was a woman of few words but I think she was proud of me too.’

Nursing as a way to serve the public

Derek Barron, director of care, Erskine veterans charity, Renfrewshire

Derek Barron

‘I’d always been interested in public service and I thought nursing was a way of serving. I chose mental health nursing because it’s a fascinating area. Mental health nursing is not just about the mind, it’s about the whole person, and I think people’s mental health, their social health and well-being, and their physical health are all important. Mental health nursing seemed to encompass that.

‘I’ve worked in inpatient care and in the community as a community psychiatric nurse working with people with alcohol problems, and I took up my first management role in 1998. In 2006 I became a nurse director where I reported to the board – that was a change because it was the first time I’d not managed services, but it gave me different opportunities. Later, I started to develop the role of advanced nurse practitioner in mental health.

‘I’ve never stopped learning as a nurse’

‘I joined Erskine, which has four care homes and provides other services for veterans, because I just happened to see the job advert. I had always been interested in working with older people and I realised I was in a situation in my career where I could afford to do this. And I knew it would never be boring – there are 313 residents, which is bigger than some hospitals.

‘Recently I was asked to chair an independent review into the delivery of forensic mental health services in Scotland, which was another opportunity to serve and try to make things better.

‘I don’t think I’ve ever stopped learning as a nurse, and that’s a great thing. It’s important to keep being inquisitive, keep asking questions. A nurse that never loses that questioning mind is a good nurse.’