Here, she tells us why she became a nurse, why she decided to work in paediatric respiratory nursing and how she has overcome the challenges her role brings.
“I was a mere 17 years old when I started training as a nurse. I just always knew I wanted to be a nurse.”
Barbara’s nursing career started at the Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast, where she trained as a Registered Nurse.
After qualifying in 1991, she realised there were few opportunities in Belfast, and Barbara decided to relocate to St Thomas’ Hospital in London. It’s here where she worked in a dermatology unit looking after skin disorders. “I cared for adults and children, which is when I discovered I wanted to specialise in paediatrics,” Barbara tells us.
In 1994, she took the step into paediatric nursing, and commenced training to become a registered sick children’s nurse at Great Ormond Street Hospital. “Once I qualified, I specialised in caring for patients who required bone marrow transplants. At Great Ormond Street, you look after Siamese twins, everything is just so specialised. It was a brilliant experience,” Barbara says.
Still living in student accommodation, she decided it wasn’t for her anymore and relocated back to Belfast. Finding a role at Royal Belfast Hospital for Sick Children, it was here where her respiratory nursing role began.
“I started on a general medical ward. You’re exposed to a lot of everything, but it was respiratory which really stuck with me.”
Barbara held a Deputy Sister role at the Royal Belfast Hospital for Sick Children for several years, but she was keen to specialise. “Nursing has changed over the years. My role is so specialised, and the children that I was looking after, 20 years ago, may not have survived. With modern technology such as portable ventilation, physiotherapy airway clearance devices and home oxygen, they are able to transition to adult services. You’re also able to create a link with the parents, it gives them reassurance that you’re at the other end of the phone.”
In 2010, Barbara took on her current role as Paediatric Respiratory Nurse, a tertiary role that covers the whole of Northern Ireland. “I specialise in ‘difficult-to-treat’ asthma. Children who require long term ventilation, by a tracheotomy tube or non-invasive ventilation, children who require oxygen at home, and children with complex sleep disorders. It’s very varied,” she explains. She has been instrumental in setting up several services, including a regional paediatric ‘difficult-to-treat’ asthma clinic which has improved asthma control, an asthma safe discharge service, and a sleep clinic.
Barbara has been nominated for a number of awards alongside her team, which is one of the proudest moments of her career. In 2015, she achieved runner-up in the RCN Northern Ireland Nurse of the Year Award. Her team has also won the Difficult Asthma Award as well as the Long-Term Ventilation Award through the charity Well Child.
Barbara became active in the research space, working with her team to publish studies. The care that she and her team deliver is all evidence-based, which she says is important. “We have had successful publications on safe asthma discharge and sleep studies, from 2016 to date. It is important that the care we deliver is up-to-date within my team.” But ask Barbara what matters most, and it’s not the winning of awards or successful publications. “Nothing beats seeing a child with a tracheotomy tube speaking their first words with a speaking valve. Working with our speech and language therapists and seeing the toddler starting to communicate is emotional for families and everyone involved.”
The pandemic was difficult for many healthcare professionals. “My team are a strong unit and we had to significantly change the way we worked. In particular, winter 2020 was extremely challenging. We had toddlers come in who hadn’t been exposed to any viruses because everybody was isolated,” Barbara says. But when we ask what she’d be doing if it wasn’t nursing, she says there’s nothing else. “A nurse’s role is unique, you get to spend 12 hours caring for your patients. It’s a privilege to provide such ongoing continuous care. Nothing gives me greater pleasure than training a parent on how to care for their child with a tracheostomy tube and watching them taking their child out for their first walk… albeit in the rain as it is after all Northern Ireland.”
It’s clear to see how much Barbara loves her role, and how much she is appreciated by the families of the children she cares for.
“It’s a privilege to care for these children and their families, particularly complex ones. They all call me Barbie, they say I’m part of the family. It’s that lovely close relationship, you’re just a massive part of their lives.”
Words of wisdom
If Barbara had one piece of advice for anyone starting out in respiratory nursing, she’ll tell you to be yourself, be caring and be empathetic. “It is a privilege to be able to care for children and their families. No family has asked to be in the position they are in. They appreciate honesty, being by their bedside and just being a nurse who can help.”