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'The lovely thing about A&E is that, although you see some horrible things, you also see real love'

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A&E nurse Hannah Headden volunteers at a clinic for people who have been trafficked and fled perilous countries.

Being able to listen to patients is a vital nursing skill and one used a great deal by Hannah Headden.

She is a support worker for Project:London, a health advocacy programme that also runs a free clinic to help vulnerable people in the UK access NHS healthcare.

“Every time I work at the clinic I am blown away,” says Ms Headden. She sees – and listens to – teenage boys who have travelled overland from Thailand and detainees who have lost their families to political unrest. Often, they are talking about their experiences for the first time.

“You hope they are leaving a little lighter,” she says. “The burden is lifted off them for ten minutes.”

The clinic is in the basement of Praxis, a community organisation in Bethnal Green. People start coming in during the morning, and wait for their time to see a clinician.

Ms Headden works through the list, talks to patients and helps them fill in the paperwork before they are seen by a doctor or nurse.

With the clinic becoming increasingly busy, Ms Headden said they have to red flag people deemed urgent, including pregnant women and those at risk of self-harm.

In the two years Ms Headden has worked for Project:London, she has seen a lot of people come to London from poverty-stricken countries, having had their flights paid for and been (falsely) promised jobs by agents. Their documents are taken by the agents so when they need medical care, they find it difficult to register with a GP.

She says many of the people she meets have heartbreaking stories. A Rwandan man who was detained told her he couldn’t sleep because he kept hearing gunshots and reliving seeing his wife being raped. On a hard day, you can take a lot of these stories home, she says.

However, there are some happy endings. After a pregnant woman was registered with a GP, she gave birth safely, registered her newborn baby and sent the team a thank-you card.

“Listening to people is as important as hands-on care,” says the nurse who works as staff nurse in a London accident and emergency department as well as volunteering for Project:London.

“At Project:London, you offer one-to-one care, which you can’t as much in A&E. You are always thinking about the next person to treat.

“The lovely thing about A&E is that, although it’s stressful and emotional and you see some horrible things, you also see real love.”

Ms Headden worked at the same hospital when she was training at King’s College London, but says it felt different after registration. “As soon as you put on a uniform, there is an expectation that you will know the answer – and that’s scary.”

But she nearly didn’t don that uniform. Originally graduating with a degree in politics from York, she started helping youth development schemes, supporting people with HIV/Aids. It was that work that inspired her to train as a nurse.

But, maybe, that politics degree will come in useful at some point. Her plans, she says, include possibly working for the Department of Health – “in 30 or 40 years’ time”. But for now, she says A&E still fascinates her.

  • Doctors of the World UK is calling on nurses to sign its Health is Not a Luxury e-petition. The petition calls on the UK government to uphold the right of vulnerable migrants to access healthcare they desperately need regardless of their ability to pay. Sign the petition at
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