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'I saw some horrific things in intensive care'

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Vicky Mason has set up coronary and critical units, but is most driven by hands-on care.

Horrific sights are all part of the day job for emergency or intensive care nurses. Vicky Mason, who has just retired from Benenden Hospital in Kent as director of quality and risk, enjoyed the final part of her career in management, but it’s the hands-on nursing at Benenden and in the NHS that she recalls most fondly.

The yearning to nurse started when she constantly bandaged up her teddy as a child. “I don’t know where it came from really. There was no nursing in my family,” she says.

“I lived in Bournemouth so I went to Poole to study in 1966. Things were very different then. For example, first-year students sat with first years, second years with second years and so on, and you never spoke to a sister unless she spoke to you first. I did a lot of medical nursing during my training and got taught a lot of skills that traditionally doctors do”.

She found her calling in intensive care. “Intensive care units were very new back then and students tended not to go there,” she says.

“But, towards the end of my training, I was lucky enough to be asked to go to intensive care, and that set the beginning of my career.

“I thought I’d go back to theatre, but once I had done three months in intensive care, I didn’t want to do anything else.”

Ms Mason had to learn to develop a strong stomach.

“Working in intensive care was the one time in my whole career that they had to sit me down before I fell. I nearly fainted when a man was brought in after he was in a road traffic accident. He had bilateral compound fractures of the tibia and fibula. Seeing that made me go a funny colour and feel sick,” she says.

“I saw some pretty horrific things in my career. Once I saw a lady who had been gored by a bull - sadly, she did not survive. You just have to deal with whatever comes through the door.”

For Ms Mason, intensive care was the purest form of nursing - caring for patients and their families and getting to know them over a long time.

Much of her early career was spent in intensive care, and setting up ICUs in the 1970s. This included moving to Northwick Park Hospital near Harrow where she helped commission its 20-bed intensive and coronary care unit.

“I suppose one of the biggest changes I have seen is those ICUs becoming mainly surgical and the length of stay become so much shorter. That made me think it wasn’t what I wanted.”

After marrying, moving to Surrey and starting a family, she returned to work full time, while her husband took care of the children. “His post had been made redundant and I guess it made sense, although it was very rare for a man to stay at home in those days,” she says.

What Ms Mason longed for was a return to caring. She went to Benenden in 1980 as a ward sister. “The patients had conditions that meant they stayed in for weeks, and we could nurse them the way I wanted to, by getting to know them,” she says.

“You could really care for them. Staffing and time was more than adequate to give the patients what they truly needed. I wanted to be with patients and give them the best-quality care. Benenden has always managed to keep to that.”

She also loved its beautiful setting in the Kent countryside, and found it reminiscent of an old-fashioned sanatorium.

After seven years as a sister, she took on more managerial roles, moving up from medical unit manager, nursing operations manager and through clinical risk management, before taking on her latest role.

“I’ve never had much of a career plan,” she says. “I have just done the roles that have sounded interesting and that have been about the patient. It’s got to be patient-centred to interest me and I’ve always been lucky enough to be able to do that.”

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