For me, it was not an easy decision to leave nursing, and the same applied to returning to the profession.
I loved nursing but I had a huge sense of curiosity about the working world outside of the NHS. I was also frustrated about cuts to the NHS, but I later realised that these cuts uniformly hit public services, and that anything of real social value is being battered. Law was attractive to me, human interest, dignity, rights, history. Matters I value.
I did better than I expected, gaining a treble first-class law degree from a London university, and going to Trinity Hall, Cambridge, to study for my master’s degree in law. I went on to become a family barrister, specialising in child protection law.
In some ways, it felt a lot like nursing. It was all about the best interests of the child, or the children, and trying our best to protect them from harm and form the most appropriate care plans.
The years went on, I gained a good, loyal client base and I enjoyed my work. But it was very, very hard. As an ex-nurse I was used to antisocial hours. But the difference was that I was paid for them and nothing felt insurmountable.
In child protection law I regularly had to study four or five lever arch folders of information the day before court (that was because they were only made available the day before, barristers pride themselves on staying up until four in the morning fact-cramming, but I see this as unhealthy, unnecessary nonsense). And this is a regular occurrence for all barristers. So, I would get the brief at 5pm, prepare until the small hours, and get up at five to do finishing touches to the court document I had to hand in, then get the train to Coventry at 6:30am, while my parents looked after my children.
That pattern was repeated over many weeks and many years. My husband, a surgeon in training at that point, was working extremely long hours and for half of the children’s infancy, was living apart from us in far-flung hospital accommodation.
I struggled against this rather extreme way of working for years. I had young children, a baby and a toddler, and I had to rely on a combination of grandparents and paid childcare to enable me to work. But the unpredictable way in which the briefs came in meant that from one week to the next, I could not control when I would work, or when I would need childcare. I begged and borrowed support from my parents and mother-in-law, with varying degrees of success. The whole period was a nightmare but I kept being lulled back in.
My clients were so appreciative. I had encouragement from judges. My best clients were usually social workers. As a former nurse I had so much in common with them. I intuitively understood their working ethos, and I had some idea about the landscape of their world, to be frank, far more than my old Etonian, Harrovian and Charterhouse colleagues. This, coupled with a sound grasp of child protection law, made me counsel of choice for some cases, especially those involving medical elements.
On 7 April 2017 I was diagnosed with breast cancer. This was both an enormous shock and a wake-up call. I had been in dialogue with the head tutor of my nearest university for about four years, making occasional enquiries about the return to practice course. I resolved that if the cancer had not metastasised, I would get on with my application to return.
The cancer had not spread being the lymph nodes in my left arm. I used my application as a distraction from being unwell, revising my maths as I underwent chemotherapy, surgery and radiotherapy. I was fortunate to have a pathological complete response to treatment. The day after I was told this by my surgeon, I sent my application in.
I obtained a placement at a local hospice to undertake 80% of my 375 return to practice hours. My mentors were very conscientious and supportive, as were most of the team.
“Being introduced to patients as a ‘student nurse’ by some practitioners was frustrating”
Although no one supported me in getting my grant. It was very clear that I was on my own with that. The administration and finance teams at the hospice were poorly organised with respect to this, and repeatedly reminded me that I was their first return to practice nurse, and that they did not understand how to obtain my grant. They made out it was my fault, not theirs, continually comparing me to undergraduate nursing students, and saying that the procedure was different for me.
After months of fighting I eventually received my £500 for expenses. I received it ten days after I had completed my clinical placement. This was both inconvenient and demoralising. It is a wonder that nurses undertake the RTP course, given how poorly remunerated it is. I spare a thought for single mothers, in fact anyone without a partner with a decent income, as they simply cannot afford to return to practice.
Being introduced to patients as a ‘student nurse’ by some practitioners was frustrating. It was as though no account was taken for my original training and years as a staff nurse, or of my life experience.
A few practitioners were simply rude and ignorant. One kept exclaiming to me that she “did not understand the point of me”. Another informed me that ”you can’t just waltz back in to being a nurse’” (ahem, hence the carefully structured, monitored and assessed RTP course, with the requirement to pass both university assignments and be signed off as competent by a sign-off mentor. Add service user feedback to the mix too).
However, for the most part the nurses I worked with were inspirational. My university tutors were also inspirational, and the theory side of the course was highly relevant. I encountered many professional, knowledgeable and hard-working nurses. Rather like my oncology team, who also inspired me to return to the most rewarding job I know.
Liz Tomlinson is a GP practice nurse at the Maltings Surgery, St Albans, Hertfordshire