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Obituary: June Jolly, pioneer in transforming children's services

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As a children’s nurse, June Jolly, who died on 12 March 2016 aged 87, helped pioneer a transformation in the emotional and social care of children in English hospitals, turning wards into playrooms and overturning hidebound practice that separated sick children from their parents despite the evidence of the harm this could cause.

lion cub visits hospital

lion cub visits hospital

Source: Copyright; Keystone Press Agency Limited; Keystone House; Red Lion Court; Fleet Street

June Doris Jolly at Brook Hospital with baby lion, 1971

In her book The Other Side of Paediatrics: a guide to the everyday care of sick children, published in the UK in 1980 (and later in a number countries, including the USA and Japan) June helped reshape attitudes and embed family-centred nursing. When asked what the other side of paediatrics meant, she replied quick-as-a-flash ‘it’s the human side’.

After eleven years as a children’s social worker in Kent, June changed career to be one of the first five students in 1963 on a new fast-track graduate nurse training programme at the Nightingale school of St Thomas’ Hospital. She remained proud to be a Nightingale nurse and intensely loyal to St Thomas’, where she was nursed in her final days.

June’s deeply-held Christian convictions and immensely practical nature were underpinned by her childcare experiences and by the work of leading social scientists, including the paediatrician and psychoanalyst Donald Woods Winnicott, who taught her in London, and James and Joyce Robertson, who she both knew, and who encouraged her work. June drew heavily upon the Robertsons’ observations of the ‘protest, despair and detachment’ of children in hospital, so graphically portrayed in their often harrowing documentaries.

As a new state registered nurse (SRN) June quickly saw the limitations of established medical practice and the untapped potential of good nursing care – indeed of good nurses ‑ to meet the emotional needs of sick children. Even though the Platt Report (1959) had said parents should have greater access to wards and be allowed to help with the care of their child, institutional resistance, inertia and autonomy meant a glacial pace of change. Years later June would recall how as a ward sister “I still had to fight ‑ theatres, anaesthetists, surgeons, matrons. They didn’t believe that this mattered.”

June’s opportunity arrived when she was asked to set up a new paediatric unit at the Brook Hospital in Woolwich in 1971. She quickly ripped out the dull, standard-issue curtains and replaced them with brightly coloured fabrics, bought with Green Shield stamps. Staff were given colourful aprons with capacious front pockets for toys, and used dolls to show a child what was likely to happen. Parents and nurses alike were urged to cuddle babies and a new care-by-parent unit was opened, so families could stay together with emergency advice at the end of the telephone. Children enjoyed fireworks and toffee apples on Guy Fawkes’ night, and famously during her first Christmas at the Brook, June persuaded a visiting circus to bring a baby elephant and lion cub onto the ward, although in return they made June put on a clown’s outfit.

In 1974 June secured a Nightingale and Rayne Foundation scholarship to visit North America and Jamaica to study family participation in paediatric care. Deeply impressed by their progressive practice and outcomes, she combined her observations, experiences and influences to publish The Other Side of Paediatrics. She went on to publish Missed Beginnings: Death Before Life Has Been Established (1987) and to work for the Department of Health and the former Greenwich Health Authority. She also served with distinction on several national nursing committees and working groups, advised the National Association for the Welfare of Children in Hospital, now Action for Sick Children, and was chair of the Brighton & Hove Community Health Council – ‘all because I opened my big mouth!’ she later laughed.

June never married or had children of her own, but she epitomised the powerful loving aunt ready to provide shelter to people in a moment of trouble, inside or outside the family. At one time she hosted a Good News club at her south-east London home, where as many as forty children would gather every Wednesday. Such commitment to the wellbeing of others stemmed perhaps from her experience aged just 12, when she led two younger siblings to Canada during a wartime evacuation. They returned to the UK towards the end of the war, at which point June became a Christian.

“It’s not that I found God,” she would say. “Rather that He found me”

June was spectacularly generous as well as down to earth, with a weakness for chocolate, Quavers and window shopping. In her final years her mobility was limited but her mind remained clear and sharp. From the armchair in her living room, she personified the potential for independent living, thanks in part to the love and support of her family, devoted friends, her church, and of a series of caring and compassionate carers and healthcare professionals, many of whom exemplified the highest standards of practice she so powerfully advocated.

Contact: Sir Richard Jolly, r.jolly@ids.ac.uk

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