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Focusing on the frontline

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Nurse champion Katherine Fenton recently received top honours for her contribution to nursing

As an 18-year-old student nurse, Katherine Fenton was sent to help an older man, who had had a stroke, eat his lunch. “I didn’t know what I was doing,” she recalls. “I tried to hold his hand while he held his cutlery, I tried to help him eat, I couldn’t help him get any food in his mouth, and I felt frustrated and powerless.

“I went home and told my mum I thought I was in the wrong job.”

Thankfully, she changed her mind - and was right to because so great has her contribution been to nursing that she was awarded an OBE in the recent New Year’s Honours list for services to nursing.

Six weeks after her experience with the older man, she gained a greater understanding about the physiology of stroke from lectures. “Everything fell into place,” she says. “I knew why I had been unable to help.”

Professor Fenton has since held numerous senior and influential positions in her 30-year nursing and midwifery career. She is currently the chief nurse of one of the biggest trust’s in the country - University College London Hospital Trust, where she leads 2,600 nurses and midwives.

Prior to that she was director of clinical standards and workforce/chief nurse at South Central Health Authority, and had roles as director of nursing and patient services at Southampton University Hospitals Trust and at Barts and the London Trust. She is a visiting professor at London City and London Southbank Universities and is governor of the National Society for Epilepsy.

Yet despite her illustrious career, it is the patients and frontline care that has always been her motivator, and she has never forgotten the importance of putting the patient at the centre of everything that she - and her nurses do.

“When I was younger, my father was diagnosed with terminal cancer while he lived in Yorkshire and both my sister and I were in London. Even knowing what we did, about the system, as a family we felt so very vulnerable, and the staff in all parts of the system looked after him and us brilliantly; and I knew it was not like that for everyone - but it should be.”

Replicating the standard of care that she and her family received, Professor Fenton was motivated to lead the development of the Safer Care Tool. This was introduced to set safe nursing standards based on the acuity and dependency of patients.

She led the development of the High Impact Actions for Nursing and Midwifery to improve quality and reduce cost. She is also the joint founder and developer of the national Energise for Excellence programme - a call to action for nurses and midwives to lead the way in delivering excellent care.

Most recently, she’s taken over the role of chair of the UCLP Chief Nurse’s group, which works across an important geography aimed at improving the health of the population.

“This method of networking and sharing best practice is important to ensure that we share ideas, learn from each other and benchmark what we do,” she says.

Collaborative working is a method she believes is vital to improving not just the standard of nursing, but its standing within the public perception and among fellow healthcare professions.

“Nursing does get poor publicity on occasions and yes we do get it wrong some times, and that has to stop. But we do get it right a lot of the time and we must not forget that. Nurses and midwives in the main come to work and do a great job, in many cases, above and beyond what is required - we have to be proud of that and start to regain public confidence in caring.”

She may have felt unconvinced that she was in the right job after meeting her first stroke patient, but three decades later, Professor Fenton has proved herself to be more than up to the task - becoming not only the patient’s champion but also the nurses’ champion too.

Jenni Middleton

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