Michelle Quested talks to Nursing Times about the difficulties of going back to nursing after losing the ability to walk
After a spinal cord injury left Michelle Quested unable to walk, her extraordinary determination got her back on the ward at Birmingham Children’s Hospital.
Nursing is a selfless choice of career, and Michelle Quested is the perfect example of this. In addition to her role as a cardiac education nurse, she is one of around 50 staff experience champions at her trust, meaning she is responsible for ensuring staff feel valued and looking after their wellbeing.
In 2010, while she was working as a neonatal cardiac nurse, Ms Quested’s spinal cord was crushed as a result of two discs that ruptured in her lumber spine, possibly caused by a car accident.
“I was desperate to get back to work”
“Within 24 hours I went from walking normally with pain in my back to being unable to walk at all, with no sensation or movement from the waist down,” she says.
She was in hospital for five months. “I was desperate to get back to work,” she says. “I knew that from day one despite the fact I’d become a wheelchair user. It wasn’t going to stop me from doing what I love.”
After 11 months, Ms Quested returned to work but as a cardiac education nurse, spending more time putting together training programmes and resources. “My injury created a barrier between doing hands-on clinical nursing and pushing a wheelchair, so for a long time I was out of the clinical environment,” she says.
Although she found the education role fulfilling, Ms Quested realised she wanted more from her work, so she started looking at ways she could become more involved in the clinical side of nursing.
“Part of that was looking at my capability as a wheelchair user,” she says. “When nursing some of the complex sick children there is often a lot of equipment and monitoring around the bed space, so I make sure I maximise the space available so I can access the patient and emergency equipment. This has involved turning cots sideways, clearing away unused toys and moving furniture around. Luckily I have a pretty stable core and good upper body strength so can usually manage this independently.”
“I like the fact that my knowledge and experience aren’t being wasted and that I still get to make a difference”
Another barrier was the infection control risk presented by Ms Quested’s wheelchair pushing rims being in contact with the floor. Cavell Nurses’ Trust provided funding for equipment that converts Ms Quested’s manual wheelchair into a power chair, making it possible for her to get back to clinical work.
“I like the fact that my knowledge and experience aren’t being wasted and that I still get to make a difference,” she says. “Supporting the family is a massive part of being a children’s nurse and to be doing that again is marvellous.”
Reaching out for support was not easy. “I’ve always been a very independent person. It took a lot for me to admit that I actually was struggling and needed some support,” she says.
“Don’t be afraid to question something, such as whether your skills, knowledge and experience are being used”
Her message to nurses experiencing difficulties is simple but powerful. “Keep strong and make sure you access support from the people around you. Don’t be afraid to question something, such as whether your skills, knowledge and experience are being used, and whether your role is fulfilling.” she says.
Ms Quested’s desire to help others, coupled with her own experience, makes her the ideal fit for her role as staff experience champion. She has helped colleagues by directing them to the hospital’s designated staff support team, occupational health service or Confidential Care facility, which provides mental health support including counselling and mindfulness.
She also volunteers for PAPYRUS, a charity working to prevent suicide, and has used the training she received to support colleagues following the loss of friends to suicide.
“I think people forget it’s 2016 and times have changed”
Having worked around the physical difficulties her injury presented, Ms Quested says that attitudes need to change to encourage nurses to speak out if they need help. “People are still more used to seeing an individual with a disability as the patient who needs help – seeing the disability before the qualities that person could bring to the workplace.
“I recently had to take my mum to A&E and the doctor came over and started talking to me, as he assumed I was the patient. It’s a deeply embedded culture seen everywhere. I think people forget it’s 2016 and times have changed. Anything is possible if you have the will and determination to succeed.”