Michelle Fearnley works hard to ensure that patients with dementia get the care they need
For many nurses, working with patients who have memory-loss problems is a serious challenge. But for Michelle Fearnley, it’s all in a day’s work – work she does with a great deal of insight and sensitivity.
“Over the years of nursing patients with dementia, I’ve come to understand that they traditionally have to deal with pretty poor conditions in hospital,” she explains. “The experiences I’ve had since qualifying have really motivated me to work in this area and improve the care we give to dementia patients.”
Ms Fearnley began her nursing career in 2007 on the very same ward she works in today: ward 20 at the Royal Lancaster Infirmary, part of Morecambe Bay Foundation Trust. Although she initially only spent a few months on the ward before experimenting with other specialties, including oncology and gastroenterology, she returned permanently in 2013. Ms Fearnley is now the clinical leader for ward 20 – a role she performs with utmost diligence and a strong focus on patient care.
“When I first came back to ward 20, a lot of what we did wasn’t meeting the patients’ needs,” she says. “We wanted to change things to assess patients on an individual basis, and provide meaningful activity and stimulation to patients with dementia.”
These changes were more difficult to implement than one might anticipate.
“When we brought our new therapy onto the ward, people were like, ‘Oh my goodness, what’s this? We haven’t got time for this!’” she recalls. “But it’s not actually any more work than before – in fact, it helps the patients so much that sometimes challenging behaviours can be avoided altogether.”
Ms Fearnley’s determination and strategic approach have transformed the ward for dementia patients.
“The environment on the ward has changed so much,” she says. “And we’re bringing in all kinds of patients with this. We’ve found that even patients who are extremely confused or have end-stage dementia still benefit from sitting in groups, experiencing a therapeutic environment.”
According to Ms Fearnley, there is now “much more of a community on the ward, with the mindset that every patient matters”. This is the result of the new practices she and her staff have put in place – not just group therapy and other stimulating activities, but initiatives such as the John’s Campaign and the Butterfly Scheme, which are specifically designed to help patients who have dementia.
“The nurses on the ward are all trained in the Butterfly Scheme. It’s based on principles by which the staff make the hospital area more dementia-friendly,” she says.
“It’s really all about the environment: bringing in clothes, photos and other things to orient the patient, so they know where they are. And every time you approach the patient, you make eye contact, and explain who you are and what you’re going to do, so the patient knows what to expect and feels reassured.”
Ms Fearney also points out that these kinds of changes don’t just make patients happy, they have a positive effect on everyone involved. “When you see changes that are effective, it makes such a difference to the entire team,” she says. “We really feel like we’re doing something worthwhile and beneficial – not just for patients, but for their families as well.”
Of course, receiving heartfelt praise from patients and their families is always the best part of the job.
“Nothing makes me feel more satisfied in my work than seeing patients calm and happy,” Ms Fearnley says.
“Someone once told me that their dad said I was his ‘guardian angel’. I can honestly say that hearing something like that is just about the greatest thing I could experience.”
Needless to say, she plans to continue her work with dementia patients and older people in general. “I’d like to nurse older people for the rest of my career,” she says. “And I might like to do a master’s in dementia at the University of Stirling. They’re world leaders in dementia research.”
Indeed, like so many other accomplished nurses, she recognises how important it is to keep learning: “No matter how old you are, the more you learn, the more you improve. Never stand still, that’s what they say.”