To kick off the New Year, we spoke to our children’s oncology clinical nurse specialist (CNS), Laura May. She told us about the job she loves, from the good parts; fun with her young patients and getting to know their families; to how she deals with the emotional side when children die.
Lives: In Hornchurch with partner Eddie Thomson, 33, a painter and decorator, and daughter Penny, six.
And: Laura once left her family on her birthday to go and comfort the mother of one of her young patients after he died.
Tell us more about your career and how you came to work in children’s oncology
I always wanted to be a nurse – there’s a picture of my in a nurse uniform on my fourth birthday. I have no idea why as there’s no one else medical in my family.
I wasn’t old enough to start my training straight from school as you needed to be 17, so I did A-levels in biology, psychology and sociology. I knew it wasn’t what I wanted and spent more time socialising than studying!
It was really nice when I started my training to be a paediatric nurse at London South Bank University and got to do practical placements. I decided to be a paediatric nurse as I’ve only got the patience for children. Working with kids is so much fun, I’m the first one to play a game or sing a song.
I did my training at King George and Oldchurch hospitals and really enjoyed it. There are still nurses I see now who I met on my first day in 2004, which is lovely.
My first job was as a paediatric nurse at Princess Alexandra Hospital in Harlow. I knew it wouldn’t last long through as it was a bit of a distance from home and I’m a terrible driver, so I was really pleased when the same role came up at Queen’s.
I was here for 18 months before I decided to try something different and joined the children’s oncology team at Great Ormond Street Hospital. I wanted to spend a year working in London – I ended up staying for over nine years and finding my calling in working with children with cancer.
I came back as I wanted to work locally and after working in the children’s community team, my current role came up around two years ago. I absolutely see myself as working in children’s oncology for the rest of my career.
What does your job involve?
I care for children with cancer throughout their treatment. I also find myself getting really close to the families as it’s so different to other forms of nursing, rather than caring for someone for a few days, I can see them through years of treatment.
I get to know the extended family; grandparents, aunts and uncles, all about school and I pride myself of trying to remember the names of things that are important to them – I remember their pet’s names but I draw the line at teachers!
I visit them at home, and at school. It’s a job you don’t really switch off from and I do take it home with me. I almost worry about my patients more than my own daughter, I think about them all the time.
How do you deal with the emotional side?
It’s heart-breaking when a child dies, and we all have to shut the door and have a cry sometimes.
One little girl died over Christmas, on 29 December. She was just 12 and it really ruined all of us. I try to be with every child when they die, if the parents allow it.
I found the way I felt about losing children changed dramatically after I became a mum. I was always sad before, but it’s almost unimaginable now. No parent should ever outlive their child. I feel so much more for the parents now, as they have to survive it. It’s why I’m passionate about the child having a good death.
We do everything we can to help them get what they want, which in some cases is to go home. It’s a team effort and we make it happen.
The mother of one of your patients, Micky Bennett, told us how you went to her on your birthday after he died…
I was very close to Micky and his family. He died on my birthday in April last year. I was in the cinema with my partner and daughter watching Dumbo and his mum, Lisa, was texting me. She said she couldn’t do it without me so I left them there and went to her.
We’re on call for the parents 24/7 and the support doesn’t stop when a child dies, we keep in touch with them afterwards.
You recently won a You Made a Difference award for recreating a child’s courage bead, can you tell us more?
Courage beads are given to children throughout their treatment and really mean a lot to the families. When they’ve had lots of treatment – they really amass beads. I give out beads every day and they’re a symbol of the journey they’ve been on.
One little girl’s were in her mum’s car when it was stolen and the mum was devastated. She didn’t ask me to, but I decided to recreate her beads using a picture of them. She had lots of beads as she’d been in treatment for a while, but I managed to do it. The mum was really choked when I gave them to her daughter. (Read more about Laura’s You Made a Difference award.)
We hear that you’ve also inspired your daughter to help children with cancer…
Last year Penny (left) had 11 inches cut off her hair and donated it to the Little Princess Trust, which makes wigs for children with cancer. She also raised almost £450 for them too. I was really proud of her.
She really understands that the children I look after are very sick and the medication they have to have makes their hair fall out.
What do you like to get up to outside work?
I like reading, and after my mum taught me, I really enjoy crocheting too. I make blankets. I sew too and last year I made a teepee for Penny.