Nursing is at the heart of me, says Bank Nurse award winner

Aileen Coomber, winner of the Bank Nurse category of the RCNi Nurse Awards 2017, has given more than six decades to her patients and her profession – and continues to do so. She explains the influences and motivations behind her extraordinary career and her commitment to mental healthcare.

Aileen Coomber, winner of the Bank Nurse category of the RCNi Nurse Awards 2017, has given more than six decades to her patients and her profession – and continues to do so. She explains the influences and motivations behind her extraordinary career and her commitment to mental healthcare

My path to mental health nursing started with some of my earliest memories of my family. As a young girl, we lived in a small village where my mother was everyone’s best friend and a person to go to in difficult times.  

She would go out at all times of the day and night reaching out to people in distress. She delivered babies, she reached out to terminally ill people, listening to and giving comfort and support to them and their families and preparing their bodies after they had died. She had no training, just a big heart.

My uncle Jimmie worked at Gosford Asylum and I loved to listen to the respect and caring that he showed for those in his care. All of these experiences and more shaped my path in life – I knew that I wanted to be a mental health nurse.

I became a nurse cadet at the age of 16 before getting married at 18. I stopped work briefly to look after my husband’s two younger sisters and then had my daughter Lynda 13 months later. 

‘I did not want to stop working and learning,’ says Aileen, pictured at Shepherd House in Worthing. 
Picture: Nathan Clarke

Thorough training

I started work as a nursing assistant at 21. In April 1976, I completed my training to become a registered mental health nurse at St James University Hospital in Leeds. It was a professorial unit, and my training was extremely thorough and excellent. I worked there as a staff nurse until I moved to Worthing, West Sussex, in 1981. 

There I worked as a staff nurse at the Acre Day Hospital and later helped to set up a nurse-led travelling day hospital. I then spent 18 months working in the child and family consultation service in Worthing. After a time on the local acute wards, I was seconded back to the travelling day hospital. 

I used my annual leave during this time to volunteer at the Free Eye Camp and the mobile hospital in Ganeshpuri, India, every year for five years. I took part in the local school runs taking buffalo milk to the children and worked in a nutritional programme for pregnant women. My care and compassion was strengthened by the attitude of these very poor people. They had nothing, but what little they had they shared with us. I learned to live my life with gratitude.

I eventually found myself joining Shepherd House in Worthing, an inpatient recovery unit for people experiencing psychosis, before I had to retire. However, I did not want to stop working and learning as a registered mental health nurse. Now I'm in my eighties, my desire to remain ‘in the field’ is as strong as ever. I still feel that I have so much to give and that Shepherd House encourages me to do this.  

At the heart of me

Being a nurse is at the heart of me. Having the honour and opportunities in my life to help others continues to energise me and give further purpose and meaning to my own life. I go to work and do the best that I can and hope that I make some small difference and sometimes enable students and others to look at things a different way. This has kept me going throughout my career and life.  

The Cambridge dictionary defines compassion as ‘a strong feeling of sympathy and sadness for the suffering or bad luck of others and a wish to help them’. This has been with me throughout my life, inspired by those examples set by my family, friends and colleagues.  

Aileen with ward manager Sarah Cramp, who describes her as ‘a constant example to those around her of how to deliver care at its best’. Picture: Nathan Clarke

I have found that each person I have met in my life as a mental health nurse is an individual and I feel privileged to be part of their support while they make changes in their lives. I genuinely believe that no matter how bad things get in a person’s life, there is always hope and other ways to view things. 

I hope that I support people to make choices that allow healing and growth. I firmly believe that it is not up to me to advise and tell people what to do, but to provide information and support, to facilitate someone’s healing and recovery. 

Be kind to yourself

I find that showing compassion and kindness extends to yourself. It has been important in my life to take time out, to do things that I enjoy, to relax and reflect and be creative, and spend time with my grandchildren and great-grandchildren. This, alongside working in a job that I love, has helped me to remain healthy and enthusiastic.  

Over the years I have seen a great many changes in mental healthcare. I find it stimulating to see and still be a part of those changes now. To be part of a team that embraces change and is fully committed to the well-being and recovery of its patients strengthens me personally, as does working with individuals, both staff and patients, who have been inspirational to me. 

I have been told of my kindness and compassion for others, which comes through in the way I work. It is not something conscious, it's just how I am, part of me. I could never stop being a nurse. It is who I am.

‘A role model to us all’

Now in her 65th year of nursing, Aileen picked up the NHS Professionals-sponsored Bank Nurse award for her work at Shepherd House inpatient recovery unit, part of Sussex Partnership NHS Trust.

She was nominated for the award by her line manager Sarah Cramp.

Ward manager Ms Cramp says Aileen is reliable and always goes the extra mile, coming in at an hour’s notice if needed. Her wealth of experience and knowledge is invaluable and she is ‘a constant example to those around her of how to deliver care at its best’.

‘She is a role model to us all in how to remain enthusiastic about the care she delivers and how she maintains her own physical and mental well-being,’ adds Ms Cramp.

‘Kindness can be underrated in the ever-changing roles of nurses, but it is at the core of everything we do and Aileen has it in bucketloads.

The bigger picture

‘She is a constant reminder to us that this is how we should be delivering care and that we need to slow down and look at the bigger picture.

‘She never becomes disillusioned and keeps the care of others and the experience of others at the core of everything she does.’

Nurse awards judge and RCNi editorial advisory board chair Caroline Shuldham says the panel was ‘bowled over’ by Aileen’s nursing ethos.

‘So many people look forward to retirement, whereas Aileen continues to nurse, finding joy in caring for others and embracing change,’ she says. ‘Her warmth, kindness and humour came over and when she says “being a nurse is at the heart of me” you absolutely know she is right.’

Aileen says she is shocked and overwhelmed to be recognised with a nurse award.

‘It’s only just beginning to sink in, and I feel so humbled and honoured by a colleague having even nominated me,’ she says.

‘I never came into nursing for recognition and rewards – it has been a whole life journey for me, one that I chose from a very young age. Every time I have worked with people and I have seen them leave our doors with their heads held high, confident and hopeful for their future, that has been reward enough.’


The RCNi Bank Nurse award is sponsored by NHS Professionals

This is a free article for registered users

This article is not available as part of an institutional subscription. Why is this? You can register for free access.