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How the NHS made me

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In a series of blogs to mark the 70th Anniversary of the founding of the NHS, we’re highlighting its central role in supporting children with life-limiting conditions and their families. We’ve asked professionals to share reflections on their roles to show the immeasurable value of providing good children’s palliative care through the NHS. Here, Katrina McNamara from Together for Short Lives looks back at some of the formative moments in her NHS nursing career.

When a colleague suggested writing something about children’s palliative care for NHS70 my first response was “I can’t – it is 20 years since I worked in the NHS.” But then I realised that it is only today that I worked with the NHS – so maybe some reflections are called for!

Aeons ago I was 18, working as a nursing auxiliary, awaiting A level results with a plan to study medicine on offer at Trinity in Dublin. The day before my results I was working a shift on the care of the elderly ward when a patient collapsed suddenly, bleeding, pale, shocked, frightened, everyone rushing around, IV lines being set up… Aside from opening packs, there was little I could do other than offer that innocent assurance to the rapidly deteriorating man “it’ll be ok, we’re here”. How empty those platitudes seemed at the time, but it was enough to make me decide that medicine wasn’t to be my career of choice – but nursing and being alongside the person. It was a memorable and life-changing moment for me – and one reinforced throughout my career as I’ve witnessed the importance of being there, alongside people and their loved ones. But with the wisdom of hindsight, it wasn’t the professional identity that was important – plenty of doctors can be there, just as nurses can, as can other care professionals.


It simply isn’t good enough that we have to rely on goodwill for staff to provide out of hours support for children who are dying

Moving forward to becoming a nursing student. I remember talking to the teenager only a few years younger than me, but who was facing the imminent death of his mother – knowing that he had the same life-limiting condition. I’m eternally grateful to an excellent nurse Bob who gave me the confidence to talk to that teenager way back in 1981 – for introducing the reality that nursing is about caring throughout a person’s life, from birth to death. Thanks for being there Bob, to answer my questions, to ensure that young man got the physical and emotional care he needed, and to help me understand that caring when a cure isn’t possible is fundamental to what we do.

Thanks too to the gruff politician who in the 1990s gave me the confidence to talk about the need to fund community nursing services for children who had life-limiting conditions. We still need the funds in the NHS to ensure the quality of palliative care for children and young people is worthy of them – so I’m still talking about the need for funding! It simply isn’t good enough that we have to rely on goodwill for staff to provide out of hours support for children who are dying, and for the staff to hope that only one child needs end of life care at one time as there might not be enough staff to provide that care.

Looking back across the years, how good it is to see specialists in children’s palliative care, teams in hospitals and the community, and to see the interface between the NHS and so many other partners in the hospice sector, the independent sector and the world of academia across the UK and the world. How good it feels to have been part of that!

Katrina McNamara is Director of Service Development and Improvement at Together for Short Lives
Follow Katrina on Twitter  @KatMcACT

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