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Applying life experiences

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Sandra Smith has drawn on skills learnt in jobs as diverse as army driver and hairdresser in her healthcare career

“You don’t know exactly what’s involved when you take on a new job,” Sandra Smith says of her many careers, which have included working as a driver in the Army Reserve (formerly known as the Territorial Army) while simultaneously training as a midwife, and later as acting director of nursing at a trust in the North West.

Sandra Smith

“You’ve got to have that little bit of expectation, thinking ‘well, I don’t know about all of this, but I’ll give it a go’ and the determination to think ‘I wonder if I can do that’,” she adds.

Ms Smith currently works for Public Health England as the quality assurance senior manager for the Antenatal and New Born Screening programmes in the North West of England.

Within PHE, each day is different for Ms Smith. Most days she is out in the region working with a variety of people, including local area teams, heads of midwifery and child health records staff.

Ms Smith’s curiosity to learn and take on new challenges is stronger than ever.

All of Ms Smith’s jobs are connected to her roots in nursing and midwifery. At age 16, Ms Smith applied to be a nursing cadet, but felt the six-month wait was too long and took up a hairdressing apprenticeship instead. She feels this role helped develop her communication skills, which she later used in clinical practice.

In 1985, Ms Smith worked part time as a driver in the Army Reserve and continued there for 12 years while completing her nurse training and subsequently qualifying as a midwife in 1994.

She learnt about leadership while in the Army Reserve: “The army had a different style of leadership. It was very command and control. Within healthcare we have to engage people, share the vision to bring them along with us when we’re trying to implement something new.”

Ms Smith has applied her background in midwifery to non-clinical tasks, including working with adult learning to develop a six-week birth and parenting programme for young male offenders at Hindley Young Offenders Institution. She accomplished this while working as a nurse there in 1999.

Working with the young men was a rewarding experience for Ms Smith. “It was challenging, but it was really good. They challenge you as well; they challenge your knowledge and your life credibility,” she says. “But the young men - who all had children - signed up for the programme voluntarily and were open-minded.”

Ms Smith also helped manage the transfer of Billinge Maternity Hospital, near Wigan, which needed to be moved to the general hospital main site, seven miles away. On her first day, she had to climb up through the scaffolding of the building wearing a hard hat to look at the project.

“I’m terrified of heights,” she says. “I had never held onto anything so tight. But I wanted to make a good impression.

“I didn’t need to know all about constructing a building - other people had that knowledge. My skills were about engaging staff, getting everyone on board and working together positively,” Ms Smith says.

She has also managed projects to reform hospital organisation, including the Hospital at Night project, which redesigned hospital services out of hours, to give patients the best possible care at night. Her clinical background allowed her to make the improvements in a patient-centred way.

“I think having clinical skills definitely enhanced my credibility, and impacted positively on the success of the project,” she says.

In her current position at PHE, Ms Smith oversees the quality of the antenatal and new born screening programmes in the area to ensure all mothers and babies are receiving the same high standard of service, whether it’s an NHS provider or an independent provider offering the screening.

Ms Smith says: “I feel really strongly that if we all do our best to improve quality, then that has to be better for the family and ultimately protecting and improving the health of the population in general.”

Sara Lawton

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