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'Seeing an inspirational tutor on the ward and in class made me see the link between doing and thinking'

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A desire to be an artificial limb engineer led Andrea Nelson into a career in nursing.

For most nurses, their familiarity with artificial limbs doesn’t go beyond helping amputees get used to them. But for Andrea Nelson, it was a desire to design them that first brought her into nursing.

“I grew up in Belfast where they had a world-leading artificial limb research centre, and I could see how these improved people’s quality of life so I decided to go into bioengineering.”

But once at university, she decided the engineering course was taking her away from helping people. “I could spend 40 hours a week doing differential equations or go 100 yards down the road to study nursing, looking from a people perspective first.”

Once on a ward, “she loved it from the start” and “took to it like a duck to water”.

And although she did return to clinch that engineering degree, it was the nursing that retained her passion for the rest of her career. Twinned with her appreciation of physics, nursing has enabled Professor Nelson to carve an interesting career, particularly as she chose to specialise in wound care and tissue viability.

“I tell my pupils there is one basic formula they must know – that pressure equals force over area,” she says. “If you want to decrease the pressure for a patient, you can reduce the force by their losing weight, which can be difficult, or increase the area by using a different mattress. A knowledge of physics simplifies it.”

Knowledge combined with practical hands-on care made nursing so attractive to her.

“When I was training I loved seeing an inspirational tutor on the ward and then seeing them again in class on Friday. It made me see the link between doing and thinking.”

And she’s reflected both the practice and theory in her career that has taken her from staff nursing at St George’s Hospital in London, through a bioengineering PhD at Strathclyde, taking up a sister role doing research and clinical care of leg ulcers at Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh, lecturing at the University of Liverpool and working at the University of York as Cochrane Wounds Group coordinator.

“The job at Cochrane was fantastic – I was paid to be on top of the current best evidence in leg ulcers, diabetic foot ulcers and pressure ulcers, and be systematic in reviewing that evidence.”

She took over as head of the School of Healthcare at the University of Leeds last August, and now works three to four days a week managing the school and teaching – the rest of the time she is leading or co-leading funded research projects in wounds.

These involve finding where research can add the greatest value to improving treatment and outcomes, for example, looking at a small trial that has pointed to “tantalisingly good” results and doing large randomised controlled trials to test that potential. Her research involves looking at how nurses apply compression bandages, what happens in textiles and how the physics of both affects healing.

Recent studies of maggots and ultrasound therapy found no real benefit. “It’s disappointing when small trials don’t bear out on a larger scale, but it is lovely when you find a huge benefit. We’re ensuring nurses are not providing false hope or wasting time or money on it. The research is nurse-oriented, and determines where they can do the most good,” she says.

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