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'We had the resources to deal with anything'

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Sharon Stewart, a military award winner, wonders why more nurses don’t join the Territorial Army.

Sharon Stewart is walking the wards again as matron at Euxton Hall in Chorley, Lancashire, after a four-and-a-half month tour of duty in Hellmand Province. There she nursed in Camp Bastion, the busiest emergency unit in the world. Although she loves her job at Euxton, she can’t wait to return to Afghanistan.

“I would go tomorrow if I could,” says Ms Stewart, who returned in January. “My children wouldn’t like it. But it’s what I think I was meant to do - to nurse people.”

She also worked in Basra, Iraq, in 2004 as part of the multinational task force.

She feels that nursing is a calling and had longed to join the profession since she was 10 years old and saw her grandmother in hospital.

“She had been sitting in a chair all day with a heavy blanket on her knees, and when she told me how uncomfortable she was, I vowed then I’d be a nurse and never let an old lady sit for that long with a heavy blanket on her knees that made them ache.”

After training at Blackpool Victoria, qualifying in 1990 and working in the hospital’s critical care and cardiac surgery units, she moved to Ramsay Healthcare Group after her father had been looked after by the company. It was in 1994, when she joined the Territorial Army as a military nurse, that her career took a dramatic turn. She now spends six weekends and two weeks a year training and touring with the TA, and goes on tour for three to six months every five years or so.

“Just imagine if a hospital completely changed its staff every three months. But in the TA, the people make it work. It’s a fantastic honour to lead that team,” she says.

“We did 12-hour shifts as a minimum - it could be 15 hours or more. One day, I went in at 7am and it was 1.30am the next day before I left.

“We saw UK and US soldiers, contractors, Afghan national police, the Afghan national army, local people including children caught up in what was going on and suspected insurgents.

“There are no such things as ‘typical’ injuries. You never know what’s coming in but we had fantastic resources to deal with anything. We saw a lot of single, double, triple and quadruple amputations, fragment injuries, burns, gunshot wounds. The hardest thing was seeing children caught up in it because it would remind you of your own children, especially over Christmas.”

Her children aren’t the only ones who find it tough when she goes away. Her employer loses her for three months, although Ms Stewart says she has gained many skills.

“If nurses want to do this, they should approach their employer,” she says. “There are lots of benefits to going and, after all, women go off to have babies for longer than three months. I return with many transferable skills that I have learned in the field. Going out has taught me more compassion, and to understand real poverty too.”

During her most recent tour, she organised an audio patient information leaflet in Pashto.

“This was important because the Taliban was telling people we’d do nasty things to them. We had an interpreter with a nice, calm voice who could reassure them. They came in looking scared, and it was nice to see them visibly relax.

“I guess some of the most difficult people to treat ethically were suspected insurgents. But we weren’t there to judge, only to treat the sick and wounded, and we did this with utmost professionalism.”

During her last tour, she was promoted to lieutenant colonel, and for her communication work with the Afghan people and her TA work, Ms Stewart has just been named a Royal Red Cross Associate, an award for nurses who display extreme courage or devotion to the military.

Florence Nightingale was the first nurse to be awarded the medal but Ms Stewart baulks at the comparison.

“I am proud of the award but I still pinch myself about the things written about me. It’s not all about me - it’s the team,” she says. “I get a lot out of the TA and I don’t know why more nurses don’t do it. I don’t feel brave at all.”

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