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'You can try to prepare yourself - but there's always a deep intake of breath'

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For NHS nurses Chris Berry and Laura Hodson, joining the RAF Reserves was the best decision they ever made

Laura Hodson and Chris Berry shared an early interest in the RAF that wasn’t satisfied by toy aeroplanes.

Ms Hodson first trained as a nurse at the University of Hertfordshire, intending to join the RAF full time. Once qualified in nursing, however, she decided to complement her work as an A&E nurse at the Whittington Hospital in London by joining the RAF reserves as a volunteer. Mr Berry, now a clinical skills trainer at Basingstoke and North Hampshire Trust, was turned away from the RAF as a young man due to poor eyesight. He pursued a career in nursing but later thought it time to return to his old flame.

“At 40 years of age I decided I wanted to give something else back to society. I considered becoming a special constable but then a friend suggested the RAF Reserves and I thought - that’s even better, because it uses my skills.”

Both have been deployed to Afghanistan and say their work in the RAF Reserves took a little getting used to. “On a day-to-day basis there is no comparison, they’re completely different jobs,” says Mr Berry. “The civilian ICU sees trauma but nothing like the trauma out there.”

On joining the RAF Aeromedical Squadron, Ms Hodson found it hard to adjust to a less active role, compared with a busy London A&E.

“When I first became an aeromed nurse I was so used to dealing actively with patients and treating wounds that I had to take a bit of a step back.”

As an evacuation nurse, Ms Hodson accompanied wounded soldiers on flights and was responsible for prioritising patients, monitoring their progress, providing pain relief and responding to in-flight medical emergencies.

“It was quite difficult,” she says. “These patients already had splints on and wounds bandaged, and I felt a little like there wasn’t a role there for me. But then I realised that giving reassurance and monitoring during the flight can be almost more important than the physical side of emergency nursing.”

But emergency nursing is not something Ms Hodson and Mr Berry have shied away from. Both have worked at the hospital at Camp Bastion in Afghanistan - Ms Hodson as a team leader in the emergency department and Mr Berry as an intensive treatment unit nurse.

“It’s all about seeing the injured guys coming in on stretchers and then watching them walking out unaided,” says Mr Berry. “One lad came in and it looked like he needed his leg amputated - two weeks later he was walking on it. He’s one of the lucky ones, he’s driving now.”

Many recoveries are also down to troops using skills on the ground taught by RAF Reserve nurses. As soldiers can administer care immediately, many can come back from injuries from which recovery would not be possible had they occurred in civilian accidents. This is why teaching nursing skills to airmen and soldiers is such a key part of Mr Berry’s job.

However, no amount of training can prepare nurses for their work in the emergency department.

“You can try to prepare yourself but it doesn’t alter how you feel when you see a 19-year-old brought in with limbs missing - it’s still shocking,” says Berry. “There’s always a deep intake of breath.”

But the support is there if you need it. “Having people around to talk to while you’re out there really helps. You’re never alone.”

This may be why both Ms Hodson and Mr Berry feel such a sense of satisfaction. “I really feel like I belong and I’m part of the team,” says Ms Hodson. Mr Berry agrees. “My job satisfaction is second to none, I don’t think you’ll find that in any civilian nursing job.”

They would both like to encourage others to join. Although it takes commitment. Mr Berry uses unpaid leave to join the squadron and his only weekend off is spent with them as well. But he has no regrets.

“It’s probably the best decision I’ve ever made,” he says.

Ms Hodson and Mr Berry are part of 4626 Aeromedical Squadron, for more information visit www.raf.mod.uk/rafreserves

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