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‘It’s so rewarding seeing patients come through the other side’

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Helen Phelan leads the homeless team at Bradford Royal Infirmary. She told Josie Le Vay about her role, the work her team do, and one man’s incredible story

Helen Phelan

Helen Phelan

A man was living in the woods. He had been hiding there for over a year, too ashamed to beg for money. He just wanted to be alone, but a house nearby was disturbing him. They were having parties and playing loud music. One day he decided to ask if they could turn it down, but they wouldn’t. Instead, they assaulted him, stole his belongings and left him in a puddle. 

He was later admitted to A&E – malnourished, dehydrated and with a chest infection. Once he was treated, the doctors wanted to discharge him. That’s when Helen Phelan and her homeless team stepped in to help. 

This is just one example of how a patient came into the care of the homeless unit at Bradford Teaching Hospitals Foundation Trust, where Mrs Phelan has worked since the unit was founded in 2013.

“I’ve been here since the beginning and it’s been really nice to see it grow from nothing. I’m quite territorial over it.” Mrs Phelan says. 

The unit is a part of Pathway, a homeless healthcare charity that operates within NHS services. It brings together teams of NHS, local authority and voluntary sector professionals to improve healthcare for homeless people. 

There are pathway teams across the country, usually led by specialist GPs. However in Bradford, lead nurse Helen Phelan is in charge.

Mrs Phelan said: “We don’t have massive numbers of patients coming in, but they are complex cases. We could spend a day a half going through everything with a patient. We do really detailed histories, we even go back to their childhood.”

“It took a while for the wards and A&E departments to refer people to us. Then they realised that we do all the work – that we get people to where they need to be. We coordinate everything,” she said.

Mrs Phelan said that it can sometimes be a challenge to build up relationships with the homeless people coming into the unit.

“A lot of our patients have had a really bad experiences in hospital. There’s a stigma around how they are treated. We try and be the patients’ advocate once they see that they can trust us,” she said. 

“I think it’s a really challenging role. We come across some people who are very difficult,” Mrs Phelan said. 

The homeless team have supported people who have escaped from prison and committed sex offences. 

“It might go against your personal beliefs to talk to them, but you have to see them as the person that they are rather than what they have done in the past.

“You have to distance yourself from it and focus on the job you are here to do, and provide support for them,” she said. 

Thanks to the hard work of Mrs Phelan and her team, the man living in the woods has now turned his life around. 

“He made me cry. He had no shoes on when he first came here. I don’t think I had ever seen anything so sad in my life,” Mrs Phelan said. 

After being discharged from hospital, he spent six months with Bevan Healthcare – a social enterprise where Mrs Phelan also works – which provides support and care for homeless people once they come out of hospital.

“He started doing voluntary work, sold flower pots that he had made out of wood for charity and became a patient advocate at the GP surgery. 

“He now works part-time as our handyman. I saw the way he was when he came into A&E, and now he’s putting our tables up. It’s so rewarding seeing our patients come through the other side,” Mrs Phelan said. 

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