‘Nursing took me to the South Pole’
On International Nurses’ Day, three nurses tell their surprising stories of how life has led them to places as far afield as Cambodia and the Antarctic.
‘Nursing has given me some incredible experiences’
Although Ben Cooper, 44, works as a nurse in Northern General Hospital Sheffield’s A&E department, his career has also taken him on expeditions to Antarctica.
“The day job pays the mortgage, and the expeditions are my personal mental health programme,” he says.
Ben got into mountaineering as a child, which eventually led to working as part of a mountain rescue team when he was a student nurse. This in turn led to an opportunity to be a nurse with the crew of a major TV programme, Shackleton, about the life of the legendary explorer.
“I spent six weeks off the coast of Iceland and Greenland on an ice breaker with husky dogs and 24-hour daylight.”
Ben also works as a nurse for the company Antarctic Logistics and Expeditions, which takes groups of tourists and mountaineers on adventures to the South Pole.
“One time we had to rescue a climber who had dislocated his shoulder and broken his leg. It was – 45 degrees, so we flew in on a ski plane, skied to rescue them with a rescue sledge and crossed a crevasse on the way back. It was seven days before the weather was good enough for us to get them to a hospital in South America.”
Ben was fortunate that his hospital allowed him to work 48 weeks instead of 52, so he could add the extra time to his leave for expeditions. Nowadays, however, with a wife and two children, he is more likely to spend his time teaching medics about polar medicine.
“We teach them about hypothermia, altitude and generally how to live and work in an extreme environment. Nursing has given me some incredible experiences – I’ll never forget seeing the Northern Lights from the nose cone of a Russian cargo plane.”
‘You become grateful for the simple things’
Sue Smith, co-founder of Healthcare Cambodia and executive chief nurse at Morecambe Bay Hospitals, first visited Cambodia in 2009.
“We toured some public hospitals and saw that there was just nothing there – the beds were rusty, most of the patients had no mattresses and were lying on the floor with gaping wounds, and there were very few staff to attend to them.”
The experience led her to set up Transform Healthcare Cambodia, a charity that has formed a partnership with the country’s Battambang Referral hospital. Now volunteer doctors and nurses visit the hospital twice a year.
“We provide basic training tailored to the resources they have. Life support is done with a defibrillator you could buy in Tesco, as they don’t have anywhere to incubate a patient. They use the same suction tubing for multiple patients, washed up with Fairy Liquid in between, whereas here you would use a different tube for every single patient.
“Every nurse who goes and and works there realises how lucky we are in the NHS with the resources we take for granted.”
Sue says the experience has not just enriched her work but also her life.
“It’s taught me the art of the possible. And when you do humanitarian work as a nurse, you develop empathy and listening skills, which make you a better nurse and a better person. You become grateful for the simple things – it’s a real leveller.”
‘It’s also about helping people in emotional distress’
Ian Keenan, 45, is a senior nurse lecturer at the University of Essex, but a couple of days a week he volunteers for the RNLI at Southend. “If my pager goes off I run down the High Street to the lifeboat station. I can be there in about five minutes.”
Much of his work involves rescuing stranded swimmers, cut off by the tide. “During the recent bank holiday the beach was packed and we were patrolling all day long.
“We rescued three groups of people, including a young boy who had a nasty puncture wound on his foot from an oyster shell. He was distraught and in pain. We gave him some first aid, calmed him down, got him back to shore and gave some advice to Mum and Dad.”
On one hot summer day in 2016, Ian was called out to rescue a group of jet skiers who had hit a sandbank at 70mph.
“The driver had gone over the handlebars and had neck and chest injuries, so I had to make sure he got spinal boarded correctly. The lad on the back of the jet ski had gone over the driver’s head, and was lying unconscious about 40m away. We had to get them on to the boat and into the hands of paramedics as quickly as possible. ”
Ian’s students are fascinated by his work for the RNLI. “They ask a lot of questions. It gives me a lot of credibility with them.”
For much of his career Ian worked as a nurse in a ward environment. “Yes, the patients are ill, but the situation is controlled with highly trained people around you. The work with the RNLI has helped me learn to problem-solve in a situation where you are a long way from any additional professional support.
“It’s not just about treating physical injuries, but also about helping people in emotional distress.”