Here, she tells us why she became a nurse, how she came to work in respiratory nursing and the way she’s strived to make a difference to patient’s lives.
Nursing wasn’t a career on Gail’s mind when she started a degree at The University of Edinburgh in 1976. “I did an English Language and Literature degree, which seems a very odd start to nursing! I would say my nursing career started during that time because, in the summer holidays, I worked as a Nursing Auxiliary at Edinburgh Royal Infirmary. It made me think about nursing as a possible career as there were student nurses at the university.”
Gail was considering nursing as a career – though her mother wasn’t encouraging. “My mum was a nurse and she positively discouraged me. She told me to go into teaching and spoke about having the school holidays off and that sort of thing.” After graduating in 1979, Gail started working in a post office while she decided on what she wanted to do.
In 1980, Gail started a shortened training course to be a Registered General Nurse at Edinburgh Royal Infirmary. “They basically condensed a three-year course into two years for people who were graduates in something not related to nursing or medicine.”
During her training, Gail enjoyed her midwifery placement the most. “When I qualified in 1982, I didn’t work as a Registered General Nurse, but I went straight into midwifery training. I trained as a Midwife between 1982 and 1984. I loved it and worked in special care a lot. This is probably what stimulated my interest in respiratory care because you were caring for tiny babies on ventilators.”
In 1986, Gail had her first son, and it was a year or so around this time when she moved from Edinburgh to Chesterfield. “I had a toddler, and I was actually expecting my second son when we moved,” Gail tells us.
Gail’s second son was born in 1989 which is when she started as a Practice Nurse in Chesterfield. “It was here where my first obvious interest in respiratory disease developed. I was asked to set up an asthma register and pull people in. It was before we even thought about chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) as being a separate thing. I remember asking what they wanted me to do with the people on the register. A general practitioner (GP) told me to bring them in for appointments and check their peak flow and I was wondering what peak flow even was!” Gail explains.
Gail’s main interests as a Practice Nurse were women’s health and asthma. However, she was also involved in research projects.
“The Royal College of Nursing’s (RCN) accredited Nurse Practitioner program was only available in London, however a researcher from Manchester was researching how to set up a similar scheme in the north. It involved training Practice Nurses in the workplace – I was one of the nurses in that study.”
In 1994, Gail moved back to Edinburgh due to her then-husband’s job. Through her involvement in the Nurse Practitioner research project, Gail was able to access extra training, specifically in respiratory disease. She developed good working relationships and became connected with pharmaceutical companies. One particular company was looking to develop a nationwide group of nurse advisors on COPD. “COPD awareness was increasing. I worked as a Nurse Advisor for this pharmaceutical company which involved a lot of travelling around central Scotland. While doing this role, I found out I was expecting another baby.”
Gail decided to give up the Nurse Advisor role due to the arrival of her third son. “Part of the reason I left was because of the travelling and I also saw another role advertised as an Asthma Liaison Nurse, which was part-time,” Gail tells us. The role involved developing a service in the Accident and Emergency department. It worked to ensure patients diagnosed with acute asthma were followed up with in primary care. Gail got the job and didn’t waste any time. “I started the role when my son was just six weeks old! I must have been mad. I do sometimes wonder where I got the energy from.”
Gail made time for studying alongside her growing family and job. In 1997, while she was expecting her fourth and final son, Gail began studying a Master’s degree in Advanced Nursing Practice at the University of Abertay, in Dundee. “You can probably tell that I liked to stress myself when having kids. I started studying in Dundee, but we moved back to Chesterfield in 1998. I continued the course by distance learning.”
In 1999, Gail joined Chesterfield Royal Hospital as a Practice Development Nurse.
“I was facilitating nursing development on the medical wards of the hospitals. But I was still very interested in respiratory. The hospital didn’t have a Respiratory Nurse Specialist and I started to think I might quite like to develop a role like this.”
Gail says she has had many memorable and proud moments during her career, but graduating with a Distinction in her Advanced Nursing Practice Master’s degree was a highlight. “I was quite proud as I never thought I’d manage to do it,” she tells us.
In 2001, the Nurse Consultant post was created, which was an exciting prospect for those in specialist nursing roles. For Gail, it was exactly what she was looking for. “We prepared a job description for a Respiratory Nurse Consultant role before the posts were officially announced. The posts were advertised nationally in a certain way. The interviews were very intense, but I was proud to secure the role.”
Gail held the Respiratory Nurse Consultant role at Chesterfield Royal Hospital from 2001 to 2006. “In 2006, I saw an advert for what I felt was my dream job. I loved my current job and had no particular desire to leave. But somebody in the respiratory world had told me that there was a respiratory centre being developed in Rotherham, which is now known as BreathingSpace. I applied for the Nurse Consultant and Clinical Lead role for the centre and got the job.”
BreathingSpace, a joint venture between NHS Rotherham and the Coalfields Regeneration Trust, is a community service based in Rotherham for people with COPD and other respiratory conditions. Gail played a vital role in its setup and the opening of its doors in 2007. “Patients just loved it. It was their first port of call and they saw it as their second home. As a new service, the first couple of years were a challenge, but we developed from this sort of embryo into a major pulmonary rehabilitation facility,” Gail tells us.
Gail explains the early years of Breathing Space were hard work.
“There were many times at the beginning where I wondered what on earth I’d done. But I worked as Nurse Consultant and Clinical Lead role for the centre right up until I retired in 2018, and I am proud of what it has delivered. It’s changed many patients’ lives for the better.”
Gail has been recognised for her outstanding commitment to her role. In 2017, she was awarded The Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother Award for Outstanding Service. The award was in particular recognition for her instrumental leadership in helping set up and run BreathingSpace. In 2019, Gail also won the Association of Respiratory Nursing (ARNS) Longstanding Contribution to Respiratory Nursing Award.
Gail tells us she ‘hung up her stethoscope’ in 2019 and moved back up to Edinburgh. “With my husband, I planned to retire to Edinburgh, but we didn’t settle and moved back down to Chesterfield in the summer of the pandemic, in 2020.”
Because Gail was a recent retiree, she was asked to help with the COVID-19 vaccination programme. “I returned to work as a vaccinator during the pandemic and did that up until I finally retired in 2023.” Asking what she’d be doing if she hadn’t gone into nursing, Gail says she can’t imagine anything else.
“I’ve never regretted a day of it. I would do it all again if I had my time again.”
Gail tells us BreathingSpace was the absolute pinnacle of her career. “Nurses in respiratory care are very much the mainstay of a patient’s treatment. I always thought nurses could be the person in charge of many patients, not all, but many patients with respiratory disease. That’s not to say they can do it without doctors but imagine a world where doctors didn’t have nurses. It wouldn’t work. It doesn’t always have to be a doctor as the central figure. It’s about multidisciplinary working. For me, BreathingSpace proved that. It showed the real worth of nursing and other therapists as the pivotal changemakers for patients with respiratory disease.”
Words of wisdom
If Gail had advice for anyone starting out in respiratory nursing, it’s to believe in the change that you can make for patients’ lives. “It’s one of the most rewarding areas of nursing you can work in to improve patients’ lives. It’s not all about medicines. So much of it is about the things that nurses and therapists really do best, and that’s what will make the difference to people who can’t breathe.”