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‘We can find something that makes a difference to patients’

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Sarah James-Reid tells Jenni Middleton why she loves working as a specialist nurse in stoma care and how the role supports patients in acute and primary care

sarah james reid

Sarah James-Reid, senior specialist nurse in  stoma care at Ashford and St Peter’s Trust, wanted to work as a nurse from the age of four. 

She never wavered, and started training at Ashford, Middlesex in 1983, and even chose her specialty early in her student career. 

“As a 19-year-old nurse, I had my first experience of a stoma bag,” she says. 

“I didn’t even know what a stoma bag was, but I was sent to look after an older woman; her bag had leaked and she was crying. I washed her, dressed her and then worried all night if I had done it right. So I went to see her the next day to check on her, and she told me that what I had done had made a big difference to her life. That struck a chord with me because I was just 19. After that. I was always interested in that bit of nursing.”

Ms James-Reid qualified in 1986, and went on to start her first sister’s post in colorectal. “Stoma care was always the thing I liked from that first time,” she said.

Since she started working in stoma care 21 years ago, she says much has changed. 

“If they have a problem we can find something that makes a difference to them”

“There is more temporary surgery done,” she says. “Surgeons are doing lower and lower joins back into the bowels, so we see more temporary stomas.”

She also says that money has been ploughed into the area, so appliances and innovations are giving patients a better choice. “If they have a problem we can find something that makes a difference to them.”

And it’s making a difference that motivates Ms James-Reid. “Our work is to fit a patient and make sure they feel secure so they can carry on with their normal life,” she says.

Ms James-Reid recalls one patient, a bride-to-be called Natalie. “When I first met her she was in a hospital bed on the surgical ward the day after surgery; she was bloated from the steroids and in tears.

“I asked her where she needed to be and when. And she told me she had to be in Marbella for her hen do on 10 June, and her wedding was in July. This conversation was on 29 April.

“So I said to her ‘Right OK, this is what we need to do. I will get you there, I will support you.’”

She made it to her hen do and looked fab, and then she looked gorgeous at her wedding. She calls me her stoma mum – and says she now has a mum, a mum-in-law and a stoma mum,” Ms James-Reid says.

Her nursing care had a big impact on this young woman. After her mum and her mother-in-law, she was the third person Natalie called to tell when she became pregnant.

“I am always saying I am not just a bag changer”

“We told her because of her pelvic surgery she would have reduced fertility, so I was pleased she could have children. It’s mind-blowing that you can make such an impact on someone’s life,” says Ms James-Reid.

 “If I tell someone I do stoma care they don’t know what it is, and they think I change bags. I am always saying I am not just a bag changer.”

Her job is certainly varied. She works in acute and primary care settings – leading a nurse-led clinic to care for patients pre- and post-surgery, visiting patients at home and looking after people on the ward. 

She also does a lot of teaching. “I have lots of students sent to me in clinic, often forced to come, but when they leave they tell me they want my job because they say I get the time to do it properly, and look after the patients. 

“It is a holistic role, and most of my work with patients is psychological. I teach them the practical skills, but it’s the emotional support – dealing with a cancer diagnosis or living with Crohn’s disease – that they need help with. That’s what I love about nursing and have done since I was four, and I am 53 now. 

“I think of myself as a patient advocate and educator for staff. I love what I do and I love nursing and everything about nursing.”

How do I get to be you?

If you’re a student, take time to spend your placement with a stoma nurse. Find out how they talk to, and treat, patients – you’d be surprised how much more they do than change bags. If you’re already qualified, talk to or shadow a stoma nurse for a few days to get an insight into the kind of work they do. Talk to patients about the kind of care they want to receive and what matters most to them – getting them ready for a life event, such as a wedding, birthday or party, can be hugely motivational for them and helps you provide the holistic care they want and need. The suppliers can help you with training – there are some excellent courses out there. Stoma nursing is not just about the physical care – be prepared to learn about how to support patients with their emotional and psychological wellbeing.

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