In Conversation With...Heather Woollard

Heather Woollard

All our teams are currently working extremely hard as we, along with the rest of the NHS, tackle Covid -19. That’s why we wanted to give our colleagues the spotlight, as part of our In Conversation With interviews, to share what they’re doing and the impact on them.

Heather Woollard, our Lead Nurse for Learning Disabilities (LD), retires after six years at our Trust today (Wednesday 20 May),  so just before she left us, we sat her down to chat about her time at our Trust, as well as the rest of her career spent working with patients with learning disabilities.

Age: 55

Lives: In Benfleet with husband John (her childhood sweetheart – they met when they were just 16!), also 55. Together they have; Jessica, 29, Abigail, 27, and 23-year-old Ben.

And: Heather has been so amazed by how much care for people with learning disabilities has changed during her career, she put together a presentation ‘100 years of LD nursing’ for our last annual safeguarding workshop.

You’ve spent your entire career working with people with learning disabilities – where did that passion come from?

I don’t really know what made me want to do it but it’s what I’ve always wanted. The only thing I can think of is that my junior school was next to a special needs school, perhaps that had an impact on me.

Originally I wanted to be a special needs teacher. When I was a teenager I spent my summer holidays volunteering at a local special needs school as I thought it would be good experience. I really enjoyed it, we did lots of arts and crafts and held sports days, we even took them swimming.

In my first year of college I found it wasn’t really for me. So instead of teaching, I looked into healthcare careers and saw an ad for training to be a learning disabilities (LD) nurse.

I did my three year training at the Basildon and Thurrock School of Nursing to register as an LD nurse. It was brilliant; we’d spend a week learning about learning disabilities and physical conditions, then spend 12 weeks on a hospital ward for LD, then have a week back in school to consolidate our learning.

I qualified in 1986 and started working as a staff nurse at South Ockendon Hospital.

Care for LD patients was very different at the start of your career, can you tell us more?

It’s hard to imagine now. When parents had a child with LD, they were told to put them in an institution and ‘try again’. The philosophy of care has changed so much it’s amazing.

That’s one of the reasons I chose this career – because I wanted to make it better.

In my early years as an LD nurse, ward sister and ward manager, the hospitals I worked in were long-stay and the patients lived there.

My first ward manager role was on a men’s ward and it was very institutionalised. They were young men wearing horrible hospital clothes – one of the first things I did was get them into modern clothes. We also used to gel their hair and take them into the village to get their hair cut, rather than use the hospital barber. They began to look like young men again.

We also used to take them on outings to the seafront. To see them running along the beach, the look on their faces as they enjoyed the freedom – it was lovely.

On a women’s ward, one Mother’s Day I got them making cards which we sent to their families. One of the mums called to ask whose idea it was, then burst into tears as it was the first time she’d received a card from all four of her daughters, she said it meant so much to her.

Things started to improve around 1989, long-stay hospitals were shutting down and LD care became more community based – that was when I became a community LD nurse.

I did a bit of everything; helping with medicines management and personal care at home, going into day centres to teach about health and hygiene. One of the reasons people with LD have shorter life expectancies is that they’re not always taken in to account in when it comes to understanding what to look out for in relation to their health, and when to ask for help. In my time at our Trust I’ve done a lot of work with our Elm Breast Centre in this area and they’ve been brilliant.

I also did sex education and supported parents with LD during my 25 years in community nursing. And I completed my diploma and professional nursing standard degree during this time.

What made you decide to join our Trust?

I’d always planned to retire at 55, so there came a point when I knew I could stay in community nursing for the rest of my career, but I decided I’d like a new challenge.

I saw the job at our Trust – it was the first time we had a specific LD nurse – and applied, however I didn’t get it on my first go and had to apply and interview again!

What achievements are you most proud of at our Trust?

I’ve seen a 100 per cent improvement for LD patients at our Trust. We have electronic alerts for LD patients, easy-read information, specific care pathways, a carer policy and support plan and the hospital passport, which contains all relevant information about LD patients.  It can help staff understand what’s normal for them which can be a good indication of when they’re not well or in pain, but can’t tell you.

One of the things I’m most proud of is our LD working group, which I introduced as soon as I started. Local LD people and their families, representatives from Healthwatch, carer groups and our safeguarding champions all sit on it. It’s a focus point for any issues in care, and sharing good practice that we can learn from and replicate. Everything we introduce goes through this group.

I’m also proud that our Trust has a good reputation for LD care – I’m a member of the LD nurse network in London and we’re streets ahead of many trusts.

When I started, it was just me, now we’re a small team of three within our Safeguarding team. And I feel better leaving having been able to hand over to my replacement – Tim Buck.

How has Covid-19 affected your work?

It has been upsetting as there have been a high number of LD patients coming in, they are more at risk as they often have respiratory conditions.

It’s been really hard as some of them have died, however, it’s also been really uplifting to see many of them recover and go home.

Since last September I’ve also led our Dementia team and they’ve been providing one-on-one care to LD patients as we don’t have as many dementia patients in our hospitals.

They’ve been able to spend time with them, reading to them, painting their nails, it’s provided really good engagement for these patients and made such a difference to them.

What are your retirement plans?

Jessica was due to get married in September and I was making the cake – so I was going to spend my first few months losing weight for the wedding, and making cakes to practice. However, that’s been postponed due to the pandemic, as has the four holidays we’d booked.

So I’m looking forward to spending time with my family, and my friends when I can. I’m also a very good potterer, so I’ll be keeping busy doing a bit of gardening, cooking, decorating – and a big de-clutter is first on my list.

I’m ready to go and I feel excited. I’ve had so many nice comments and messages when I’ve ben introducing Tim to people it’s made me take stock and think I am proud of my achievements, and I’m glad he’s here to keep it going.

And our favourite question of In Conversation With… do you have any pets?

We’ve got a lovely little dog, Maggie May, She’s a Cavapoochon, a mix of a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, Poodle, and a Bichon Frise. She’s my baby and looks like a little teddy bear. We got her as a puppy, she’s four now. She’s a spoilt princess!

I’ll also have a grand-dog soon as one of my daughters is getting a puppy.

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