The height of the Covid-19 pandemic may now hopefully be waning, and this unforgettable chapter for the NHS has also been the final act of a long career of one of Richmondshire’s much-loved and respected nurses.
When Lesley Shield, 65, walked out of Bedale Grange Care Home on June 30, 2021, chocolates, flowers and balloons in hand, she knew she would never don the uniform again, 60 years after she was given a red nurses bag and cap for Christmas at the age of five.
“From then I always wanted to be a nurse. I always wanted to care about people. I came from a big family, and being one the eldest of eight brothers and sisters, I was always my mother’s right-hand girl.”
Lesley Roberts, as she was then, started nurse training on February 5, 1975 at Newcastle General Hospital. This was moved from the intended location of the city’s Freeman Hospital, but it was two years behind in its construction, so didn’t yet exist.
“It was like going into a different world, coming from the small town of Richmond to the big city, and at that time, not many people left Richmond for cities, or anywhere really!
“Student nurses at the time were classed as a working member of the team, earning £80 per month. Most of the training and assessments took place in actual ward environments, so we gained a lot of hands-on experience.
“I do think today’s nurses miss out on the ward experience that we had and the sense of sisterhood, but I guess advances in technology, and the evolution of healthcare in general means that more time has to be spent in the classroom, and on personal study.
“There is more litigation now, and every decision has to be research and evidence-based, whereas our work was a lot more focused on patient care.
Lesley, of Quarry Road, Richmond, recalls an instance during training that helped shape the type of nurse that she would become,
“As a first year student, I remember being told off by a third year student for washing an elderly lady’s slippers that she had soiled because it wasn’t part of my role.
“The next thing I knew, I was called in to the see manager of the unit because she’d heard about the incident, and wanted to congratulate me for putting the patient first, and informed me that the student nurse had been disciplined.
“That gave me a lot of confidence to stand up for my principles. Not everything was perfect then either.”
A fellow student of Lesley’s, Sue Horsley, spoke of the ethos among student nurses back then.
“There were very strict rules then. We all lived in a nurse’s home across the road – no boys allowed, we had a night porter and regular inspections.
“On the wards, when the night sister visited we had to take off our cardigans and stand up, and if they were approaching a door we had to get there first to open it.
“We had to wear American tan tights, very little make up, short nails and no jewellery except a wedding ring. Every nurse was expected to have a black pen, a red pen, a pair of scissors and a fob watch.”
“We had good times though. Nightclubs were free for us up to 10pm and one of my memories of Lesley is her whole family showing up to see Tavares in Newcastle.”
Upon graduation in 1978, Lesley was given a role of Staff Nurse at Newcastle General, and in 1981, moved closer to home to the St John of God Hospital in Scorton.
Though a small, private hospital, in 1989 Lesley had the first taste of the difficulties of healthcare funding, a reminder that NHS politics were as relevant then as they are today.
NHS funding was withdrawn, and the hospital were forced to offer inferior contracts to staff, and Lesley was one of 20 who refused.
Later, with the help of the Royal College of Nursing and the National Union of Public Employees, it was ruled as wrongful dismissal and those involved were compensated.
“I don’t blame the hospital, as their hand was forced by the NHS.”
Lesley then worked at the Duchess of Kent Military Hospital in Catterick Garrison, followed by a stint at the Stroke Unit at the Friarage Hospital in Northallerton, before moving to Richmond’s Victoria Hospital on Quaker Lane in 1992.
She spent the largest part of her career at Richmond’s Hospital, including when it moved location and became the larger Friary Hospital in 1999.
“At the Friary, everybody knew who you were and vice-versa. It made local people feel comfortable with you, and that made you strive to be even better.
“People would come in at the end-of-life stage so comfort and confidentiality was a big factor. It was so special being part of a team that made a real difference to where you lived.
In 2006, Lesley was promoted to ward sister of the Victoria Ward in the Friary Hospital, enjoying providing leadership and guidance to young nurses, one of which was Sarah Hunt, who spoke of her memories of working with Lesley.
“My first job as a nurse, in 2000 was at the Friary, and Lesley was a senior nurse then. After a while, she started to brush off on me. I very much looked up to her and respected her, and I like to think the way I nurse now, is the way Lesley nursed.”
“With Lesley, she knew the art and the science of nursing. She knew the science behind everything, but then she had the art – she knew what to say, when to say it, and when to touch somebody. She just had it.”
“Even now, when I’m working in A&E in Darlington, and things are going crazy all around me, it’s still Lesley’s voice I hear in my head that gets me through it”.
In 2016, Lesley didn’t feel she could continue as Ward Sister as she was recovering from recent back surgery. She spent short stints as a practice nurse and a ward clerk at the Friary, before her husband fell ill, so she once again took a job, at the age of 62, as a registered nurse at the Bedale Grange Care Home.
Lesley was perfect for the job. Being a private care home, it required all of her experience and knowledge, as it didn’t have the backing of a monolith like the NHS, either for finances or logistical support 24/7.
“It enabled me to culminate everything I’d done in the past as it was all about the residents and their families. I felt as if it enabled me to make a positive difference to people’s lives. I was able to give the most holistic care to not only residents but their families, as you built up relationships with them.”
With a retirement plan in place for early 2020, nobody could foresee the world-changing events of that year coming:
“I agreed to stay on, just for the lockdown, as the social care sector was clearly going to be under extreme pressure.
“When the home was locked down in March, no visitors were allowed in at all, so residents relied on you for absolutely everything, not only medical care and cups of tea but emotional support and comfort during times of distress.
“All residents in the home had to be tested before and upon admission, and then isolated for 14 days.”
Now she has more time to hoover, play word games and decide what to plant in the new greenhouse, Lesley reflects on her time at career and her time at Bedale Grange with fondness:
“It was the best possible end to my career. To go out still making a real difference and feeling needed was marvellous. At the end, the joy and satisfaction of seeing families being reunited upon easing of restrictions was indescribable.”
“Nursing has never been easy. You have to be dedicated to the cause 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Over the years I’ve seen highs, lows, joy, grief, hysteria, laughter and companionship. I’ve made friends for life.”