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'Empowering nurses to take charge is rewarding'

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Having started her career in the NHS, Julia Atherton talks to Jenni Middleton about how she came to join Barchester Healthcare, and later become director of nursing.

Julia Atherton

Julia Atherton

Julia Atherton was born to be the director of nursing at Barchester Healthcare. It’s not that she had any nurses in her family or that she was pushed into the profession by her parents – yet it seems it was always her destiny. 

She was born in the The Mount, maternity hospital, a hospital that has since become one of Barchester’s care homes  – one of the over 200 residences for which she leads the nursing care.

“I was one of five children,” says Ms Atherton. “And I was always the caring one – looking after my older neighbours. I cared more about what they wanted rather than running off and playing games with my brothers and sisters.”

It seems right, then, that she’s ended up running the care for older people’s residential and nursing homes. However,her early career was through a more traditional hospital route. 

After training at the Norfolk and Norwich, she took up posts in the coronary care unit and neurology unit, and then went on to Southampton University Hospital to work in neurosurgery in the regional centre.

“The brain just seemed so intriguing,” she said. Her career led her to Newcastle to run the regional neurosciences centre in acute trauma.

“I started as a ward sister, and then was promoted to the matron position. I was involved in Headway and the Northern Acquired Brain Injury Forum, and that was how I got approached for my first job at Barchester 11 years ago.

“I remember sitting at my leaving party from the NHS not believing that I was leaving. I always thought I would nurse in the NHS, but I had lots of contacts in the service that I could use to support people who needed complex care. We had a fantastic community ventilation team that we worked with collaboratively to develop Barchester’s services.”

She took on the national care and quality manager for diverse services role in 2012, supporting 16 services, helping families whose loved ones were going from one to one care in a hospital high-dependency unit or intensive care unit, into a care home setting. “That was incredibly rewarding, to see nurses empowered to make decisions and support complex care,” she says.

“We do fantastic work here, with fantastic nurses and carers”

As director of care and quality from 2013, she supported the former chief nurse of Barchester, Trish Morris-Thompson. “This flipped my previous interest from neurology to look at the bigger picture – how to care for older people. I could still use my interest and expertise in the brain, for example when building services to care for those with dementia.”

Earlier this year, she was made chief nurse at Barchester. We do fantastic work here, with fantastic nurses and carers. We want to know what matters most to our residents.”

What she loves about being a nurse now is what she loved when she visited her neighbours as a child – supporting and caring for people the way they want. 

”One of my proudest moments was taking a gentleman who had locked-in syndrome from Durham to MCC Lords. He had been made a member of the MCC following his accident, and had always been involved in cricket; visiting the long room with his family was one of her proudest nursing moments. What seemed impossible happened. That’s the true power of nursing.”

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