‘Wonderful and courageous’ children’s nurse crowned the Patient’s Choice

Joanna O'Toole has received one of the most prestigious accolades in nursing for her ‘compassionate, exceptional’ care, after being nominated by the family of a young girl with a rare syndrome.

A children’s respiratory nurse specialist has received one of the most prestigious accolades in nursing for her ‘compassionate, exceptional’ care, after being nominated by the family of a young girl with a rare syndrome

Joanna O'Toole with Amélie and family. Picture: johnhoulihan.com

Joanna O’Toole has won the 2017 Patient’s Choice category of the RCNi Nurse Awards - the only category to be decided by a vote open to the general public. 

Patients nominate a nurse who has made a real difference to their, or a loved one’s, care for the award, which is sponsored by Yakult and supported by Smooth Radio. The public voted on a shortlist of five inspirational stories of clinical excellence and compassionate care from across all branches of nursing.

Comfort and support

Lesley Chan nominated Jo, her daughter Amélie’s ‘wonderful and courageous’ respiratory specialist nurse, for the comfort and support she has shown, even though she herself has been diagnosed with secondary cancer. 

Lesley says her whole family is delighted that Jo, who works for Royal Manchester Children’s Hospital (RMCH), has been recognised ‘for being the very special and wonderful woman and truly dedicated nurse that she is’.
‘This is a wonderful accolade for her and her family,’ says Lesley. ‘It is testament to her selfless compassion and determination to continue to volunteer and care for families like ours. Jo continues to give to others when her time is so very precious and should be spent with Jim and her two daughters. 

Considerate and caring

‘Jo will forever be in our hearts as a fabulous, considerate and caring nurse. She is our hero for her real commitment to the NHS and families like ours who have complex children and need strong nursing advocacy and support.’ 
Jo looked after 12-year-old Amélie, who has Charge syndrome, for four years. ‘It made me feel safe knowing that she knows our girl so well,’ says Lesley. ‘She has stayed after her shift finished many times to sit with my family and provide comfort. 

‘We are never made to feel rushed and she stays hours after she should have gone home. I’ve often said: “Go home Jo, your family need you.” She always replies: “My girls are grown-ups and Jim won’t mind, he knows what I'm like.”

‘She is always positive and manages to keep me positive, and she often provides some adult company in the lonely world in which we often find ourselves in hospital.’

Lesley appreciates how Jo has always included Amélie’s three siblings and always asks about each one. 

Patient's Choice award winner Joanna O'Toole. Picture: johnhoulihan.com

‘She listens and cares’

‘More importantly she remembers their stories and journeys and will ask for updates months later,’ says Lesley. ‘The fact that she can remember all the finer details of previous visits shows that she truly listens and cares about all our family and not just Amélie.’

Jo rings home to provide updates, chases every result and always finds the family in A&E. ‘She always makes a plan,’ says Lesley, and then checks on us later and ensures the teams are following the plan.’ 

Lesley is grateful that Jo arranged for Amélie to have all her IV therapy at home, keeping the family together and Amélie as well as she could be.

Sense of fun

Jo’s sense of fun has been invaluable for the family. ‘She makes us all laugh,’ says Lesley. ‘She has a silly dance and wears a smile 24/7. Amélie is profoundly deaf and partially sighted and so she relies on facial expression and Jo knows how to raise a giggle and bring her sense of humour out every time. She never fails. 

The family is devastated that Jo’s cancer is terminal. She has recently retired from nursing on medical advice. 

Jo visited Lesley to say goodbye as they worked at the same trust. ‘She said she could not go without a hug,’ says Lesley. ‘She was so calm and smiled throughout. In fact I’ve never seen her without her smile. 

‘I don’t know how we will manage without her no longer overseeing Amélie’s care and I will feel empty without Jo in all our lives.

‘I sincerely hope Jo gets the recognition she deserves for being so special and that her exceptional care is acknowledged before she passes away. It would be a wonderful way to say thank you to Jo for delivering the truly personalised, kind care all nurses should.

‘She delivers the truly personalised, kind care that all nurses should. She is a credit to the NHS.’ 

Jo says she is very touched that Lesley has nominated her. ‘It made me very tearful to think that someone wrote those words about me,’ she says. 

‘It has been lovely for my family. My daughters – one of them is also a nurse – and my husband are gobsmacked that Lesley took the time to write such a nomination. It was nice for my husband to see that I was recognised for what I do.’

‘I really got to know Amelie and her family. You have to give the care you would want for your family – no half measures.’

‘She delivers the truly personalised, kind care that all nurses should. She is a credit to the NHS.’ 

Lesley Chan

Jo spent her entire 39-year career in children’s nursing. She worked as a neonatal nurse for 14 years. ‘When I first started we did not have not have oxygen or oscillators,’ she recalls. ‘We did our monitoring with our eyes, knowledge and skills.

‘When I turned 40 I wondered whether I should do something else but I decided I couldn’t leave children’s nursing.  

She worked as a cystic fibrosis (CF) specialist nurse before moving into respiratory nursing as a secondment as managers were struggling to recruit nurses into the post. 

‘I thought I would do the role for a year but realised that there was actually more support for CF families,’ says Jo. ‘In comparison the families needing the support of a respiratory nurse had already had four nurses in four years and nobody was settling. I thought that was unfair on those families so I stayed.’

She loved the role. ‘These children are in and out of acute care. Some of my job is education, some is liaising with the community nurses to keep Amélie out of hospital and her family together at home. 

‘I have a lot of input initially but my job is to empower families to manage, but they know I will always be there if they need me. They know they have someone to come to if they have a problem and that they don’t have to manage it all on their own. 

‘I am there to fight their battles as they already have to fight so many battles for everything. Lesley felt she finally had someone to help her fight her corner and listen.’

Giving support

She sees ensuring the family receives all the support they can get as important. ‘It is critical to look after the whole family – not just the child,’ says Jo. ‘And both parents need to be able to cope in case the main carer is ill.’ 

She was very reluctant to retire. ‘I have loved every minute of my 39 years’ nursing – the children, their families and the people I have worked with,’ she says.

Instead Jo is volunteering on her ward twice a week, playing with children and giving parents a break.

‘She is a consummate professional, a leader, a clinical expert, skilled, calm, strong and resilient’

Cheryl Lenney

She says: ‘I am there to support parents and listen to them and look after their children while they get a cup of tea. I also play with children when they do not have any visitors.’

She hopes that her work might provide the foundations of a future model for volunteer work on the wards.

Jo first had breast cancer 10 years ago and then again three years later. This time, she has multiple secondaries, including in the pancreas. 

Living life to the full

‘I was given until Christmas and I am still here. I am living my life like I have always taught children in my care who have often had a limited life expectancy. I have always encouraged them to live their lives not wait around. They have taught me an awful lot in terms of how to manage the situation. I believe that is why I am doing so much better than anyone expected.’

Central Manchester University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust chief nurse Cheryl Lenney says Jo ‘richly deserves’ the Patient’s Choice award.
She says: ‘She is a consummate professional, a leader, a clinical expert, skilled, calm, strong, resilient but most of all a caring and dedicated children’s nurse. These are big shoes to fill and we are proud that Jo chose RMCH and our trust to dedicate her career to the children who use our services. Thank you Jo and thank you to everyone who supported her nomination.’

The Patient’s Choice award was sponsored by Yakult and supported by Smooth Radio

Yakult and Smooth Radio


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