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‘I really wanted to know and understand what was going on’

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Sheila McQueen speaks to Madeleine Scott about what made her want to become a nurse and her interest and expertise in education and continuing professional development

I really wanted to know and understand what was going on

I really wanted to know and understand what was going on

Sheila McQueen

Every so often, you come across someone and know that they’re doing exactly what they’re meant to.

Sheila McQueen, professor of nursing and continuing professional development (CPD) at the University of Sunderland, is one such individual. She’s warm and a gifted storyteller; it is not hard to picture her in front of a class with students hanging on to her every word.

Professor McQueen is an unquestionable authority on nursing education and CPD. She stands on a foundation of 37 years’ nursing experience and has not doubted herself, or her career choice, for a moment. 

“I had always wanted to be a nurse. I don’t ever remember a time when I didn’t know that I wanted to be a nurse,” she said.

Where did this impulse come from? Professor McQueen did not grow up around the profession and had no nurse role models as a child – but said that she had always felt a “real calling”. One instance in primary school sticks out in particular: “There was another child who was smaller than me who fell over and grazed a knee, and I took them to see the teacher and stayed with them.”

Professor McQueen couldn’t help but laugh as she remembered the next part. “The teacher, obviously joking, said that they had just appointed me as the school nurse – and to be honest, I believed it.”

She began her career in 1981 – and although she was never a school nurse, Professor McQueen did end up working with children. She did her sick children’s qualification in the Royal Hospital for Sick Children, Edinburgh, and because she’d had experience in critical care nursing for adults, her first placement was caring for children in intensive care units.

“The memories of the children that I cared for and their families are so precious that I often say, ‘well, if you offered me a million pounds for the memories, I wouldn’t give you them,” she said.

It was in working with sick children that her passion for education began to crystallise.

“There was a child who looked to me as though they were covered in very bright purple bruises – all over their face, chest and legs.”

“I said to the staff nurse, ‘Oh my goodness, has this little one been in a car crash?’ She said that the child had meningitis, and wouldn’t survive.”

The child, tragically, did not survive – but Professor McQueen later found that this was due to meningococcus, not meningitis. And from that point, she said, “I really wanted to understand and be knowledgeable in what I was seeing and what was going on.”

“When I was first a student nurse, I don’t think the words ‘evidence-based practice’ were ever discussed. Over the years as a practitioner and as a senior nurse, I really understood the huge importance of CPD to the best care of patients and families.”

“I saw education as being the best way to improve practice. Without education, nothing would change.”

In 2002, Professor McQueen decided to do something about it herself, and moved her career into education. She believes, strongly, in the work she’s doing right now – especially given the current state of nursing. “[Nursing] has always been challenging, but I think the challenges at the moment have escalated… We’re taking on larger and more diverse roles. [There are] demands for the highest-level decision-making in nursing now, [demands] for autonomy”, she notes.

“We need to be absolutely expert and competent at all times in what we’re doing – we’re all responsible for the succession of our profession.”

“Are we up for that? Will the modern nurse be up for that?” She doesn’t take a moment to hesitate. “Absolutely.”

How do I get to be you?

Always remember that you are working to a code of conduct, and always remember that you should do your absolute best. If you can’t, then you should speak up, and say the reasons why – never settle for second best.

Put your patients and families at the very centre of what you do. Don’t worry about being popular. Make yourself unpopular if you have to in order to get best practice and best care, because at the end of the day that’s all that matters.

Have a tremendous thirst for knowledge. Try to learn something new. I’m still learning every single day. Never be judgemental and never, ever judge anyone. Always listen to things from the other person’s perspective. The other way to be like me is to be quite old!

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