Career advice

My journey from rough sleeper to Queen’s Nurse

A nurse’s foot clinics for people living on the streets are inspired by her own life experience
A Homeless Hope street clinic

Community nurse Donna-Marie Thomas reflects on a career built on a difficult start in life, and offers advice on how to overcome hardship

After spending much of her childhood on the streets, community nurse Donna-Marie Thomas has now set up a project to help people who are sleeping rough get vital healthcare.

I still feel as if Im going home when I go back to the streets because I lived there for so long, says Ms Thomas, who works in Powys in Wales.

I feel comfortable with those who are homeless, she adds. I know where they are coming from and what they are talking about.

After experiencing sexual abuse as a child, Ms Thomas ran away from

...

Community nurse Donna-Marie Thomas reflects on a career built on a difficult start in life, and offers advice on how to overcome hardship

A Homeless Hope street clinic

After spending much of her childhood on the streets, community nurse Donna-Marie Thomas has now set up a project to help people who are sleeping rough get vital healthcare.

‘I still feel as if I’m going home when I go back to the streets because I lived there for so long,’ says Ms Thomas, who works in Powys in Wales.

‘I feel comfortable with those who are homeless,’ she adds. ‘I know where they are coming from and what they are talking about.’

After experiencing sexual abuse as a child, Ms Thomas ran away from home when she was nine. She spent the next nine years living between local authority placements, including secure units to try to stop her absconding, and sleeping rough on London’s streets.

‘When I qualified as a nurse, I felt I’d gone from being a nobody to finally becoming a somebody’

‘I reached the point of suicide many times,’ she says. ‘I’ve felt broken, like I was going nowhere and nobody cared. It wasn’t until I came out of care that I felt free. From there onwards, I felt it was up to me to change things.’

From carer to a nursing career

While working as a carer, she decided to try to become a nurse. ‘I liked how looking after others made me feel and I thought I was good at it too,’ says Ms Thomas. ‘It felt as if it was something I was meant to do.’

But first she needed to improve her literacy skills. ‘My reading and writing were awful,’ she says. ‘After I left home, I didn’t really go back to school, aside from short snippets.’

Another two years were spent on an access course, before she was offered a place at Swansea University, completing her nursing degree in 2006. ‘It was a massive achievement,’ she says. ‘When I qualified as a nurse, I felt I’d gone from being a nobody to finally becoming a somebody.’

After working on hospital wards for several years, including medical rehabilitation, renal and cardiac intensive care, Ms Thomas switched to community nursing in 2017.

Advice for nurses

Tips from Donna-Marie Thomas on facing adversity or helping others overcome hardship:

  • Encourage everyone: You never know what people are going through
  • Find a way of sharing your feelings and experiences: I write street poetry,says Ms Thomas. This helps her to talk about the abuse and challenges she has faced, alongside dealing with painful memories
  • Never give up: ‘I’ve had people come to my talks who were going to walk away from their training, but listening to my experiences has spurred them on.’
  • Think about your own your background: ‘Always remember where you’ve come from and don’t look down on anyone’

How a young man with trench foot inspired street clinic

A year later, she took part in a charity sleep out to raise money for homeless people in Cardiff.

‘We met a young lad who was hobbling around with really painful feet,’ she recalls . ‘We encouraged him to take off his shoes and saw he had trench foot, and his toenails were growing back around into his skin.

‘We bought what we needed to sort his feet out and it went from there. I just felt I had to do something to pay back to the streets.’

‘One of the most vulnerable things for homeless people is to take their shoes off’

Within two weeks, Ms Thomas had gathered a small group of volunteers who went out with another group providing food. Today, her Homeless Hope group has more than 140 volunteers, including nurses and nursing staff, students, pharmacists, paramedics, therapists and members of the public.

‘We’re a group of people with a hugely varied set of skills and life experience,’ says Ms Thomas. ‘We’re offering support and kindness to people who are down on their luck for so many different reasons.’

The project has now expanded into Swansea and Newport, and once a month the volunteers provide food, distribute donated items such as sleeping bags, shoes and clothing, and offer foot care to those who are homeless.

‘At first, they will watch from afar when you are treating someone’s feet,’ explains Ms Thomas. ‘One of the most vulnerable things for homeless people is to take their shoes off – they can be so embarrassed about it.

‘When they are able to do that, we know their barriers are starting to come down enough to begin to talk to us.’

A volunteer works with a client

Healthcare assessment and signposting

Using their clinical knowledge, they assess when someone may need extra support and help for other health issues, such as leg ulcers, signposting them to services. ‘We have lots of information,’ says Ms Thomas. ‘We’re there to try and engage them.

‘They know we’re nurses, but we’re not in uniform, so they feel comfortable. And we can see that our approach works because we have people come back to us afterwards who had nasty wounds that are now healed.’

Next year, they are applying for charitable status and have plans to extend their services to Powys and Bristol. Although the pandemic and subsequent lockdowns have limited what they are able to offer on the streets, they have continued to provide some care in hostels.

They are also staying in touch with people who sleep rough, sending out shoes, socks and foot creams, with fundraising efforts carrying on.

Recognition for achievements

In 2018, Ms Thomas spoke about her experiences to a homeless health network event, organised by the Queen’s Nursing Institute, which took place at King’s College London in The Strand. ‘It was four or five doorways away from where I’d slept as a child,’ she says. ‘It was a very poignant moment and an amazing feeling to be there. I felt I’d finally taken back control.’

A year later, she became a Queen’s Nurse and won an excellence award given by her employer, Powys Teaching Health Board. She was shortlisted in the general practice and community nursing category at the 2020 RCNi Awards.

‘That came completely out of the blue,’ says Ms Thomas, who was nominated by a nursing colleague for her work to help a man with chronic infected leg ulcers. ‘It’s up there with my proudest moments – a huge honour.’


Related articles


Want to read more?

Subscribe for unlimited access

Enjoy 1 month's access for £1 and get:

  • Full access to primary healthcare.com
  • Bi-monthly digital edition
  • RCNi Portfolio and interactive CPD quizzes
  • RCNi Learning with 200+ evidence-based modules
  • 10 articles a month from any other RCNi journal

This article is not available as part of an institutional subscription. Why is this?

Jobs