A Life in Nursing and Volunteering in the Community
29 November 2023 | Dr Catherine Ryan MBE QN
My nursing career has run alongside my passion for charity work.
Supporting education for orphans in Africa, observing health care for Aboriginal communities, or providing and improving care for those with dementia and those needing end of life care at home, have been some of challenges close to my heart. Running marathons, walking and cycling miles, scrambling up mountains, organising events with a ‘can do’ and ‘must do’ approach needs a supportive family, friends and colleagues who also go the extra mile with you.
I qualified as an SRN in 1978. I have worn many hats, starting as a staff nurse at Ipswich Hospital, moving into private care, setting up and running my own private care agency, then selling up and moving back into the NHS, training as a DN, a job I loved. My personal situation changed and I needed to move into a more 9 to 5 role. Undertaking a master’s degree in education and training, I used to study and watch the dawn each morning, as my daughter slept. I have always been an early riser, and that’s then when my brain is the most effective! Eventually I moved into training and management but, after yet another NHS reshuffle, I decided to go full time into Nurse education, at Suffolk College. First as a senior lecturer, then as an Associate Dean, supporting the school of health and social work. Finally I decided to go it alone, and worked for myself as a consultant in management and education, working for many NHS Trusts and PCTs.
Like many women, I juggled being a mother, carer and full-time nurse while undertaking research and study. I was a reluctant student, but I recognised education was my ‘passport’.Dr Catherine Ryan MBE
Like many women, I juggled being a mother, carer and full-time nurse while undertaking research and study. I was a reluctant student, but I recognised education was my ‘passport’. I started my own PhD many years ago, but sadly due to my mother having Alzheimer’s it fell by the wayside as I become a full-time carer. During my time as a carer, I became very aware of the gaps in service provision. After my mother and father passed away, and my daughter had grown up, I wanted to go back to my first love: Primary Care and Community Nursing. While regaining practical skills as a community nurse and as a Practice Nurse, I trained as an ANP, working in the Out of Hours services and as a locum for GP practices. Back to studying before dawn every day, still my favourite part of the day…
I returned to frontline clinical practice over 20 years ago. The GP practice in Suffolk that I work for gave me the strength and freedom to be innovative, creative, and allowed me to develop new and exciting ways of working. They recognised that I needed to try and change the way we managed the way we delivered care to our community. I set up our own out of hospital services, training local carers how to work with our patients, to keep them safe and at home rather than go into hospital. It was revolutionary in its timing. My work ‘family’ has continued to encourage and support me to research, design and develop a unique role to meet the needs of the community that I serve. The charity I started, Sole Bay Care Fund has gone from strength to strength, providing extra care and resources that our social services or NHS are not able to support.
Southwold in Suffolk is always perceived in the media as a very wealthy resort. However, Southwold only has a population of around 800 people. Streets are full of holiday homes, and perhaps only one out of two houses are lived in: many are just single elderly people living alone. The Sole Bay GP Practice supports all the surrounding villages and social isolation is an enormous problem.
Reydon, the next village, has a higher population, but there is little local work and house prices remain high. It is difficult to attract younger people to move to the area. Consequently, carers and services near to home are very limited. Our local hospital is an hour away, and transport links are poor.
Sole Bay Care Fund provides what is needed – everything from fitting a key safe, walking a dog if the owner is unwell, supporting elderly people who could stay at home with the right support if acutely ill, providing at-home day care for those living with dementia, to 24 hour end of life care at home, hiring a stair lift, or supporting respite care as near to home as possible.
The charity has been embraced by our community and goes from strength to strength. Working in partnership with Dementia UK, we provided the first GP based Admiral Nurse, working exclusively with our families and patients living with Dementia. The charity also now provides a community bus service around the town, it offers a ‘walk and talk’ weekly walking group to help with isolation, singing for Lung Health, and Fun and Friendly singing for those with dementia. We have helped fund activities for children and recently with the support of other organisations in the town are undertaking a pilot project to ‘Feed all Children’. This is making sure every child in our nursery and primary schools can have a hot meal each day. We continue to explore and develop new ways of working and integrating all our services with statutory and volunteer agencies. ‘No can do’ is not a phrase we use.
I was given the title of Queen’s Nurse in 2016 and awarded an MBE for Services to Nursing and Fundraising in Suffolk in 2020. My career has come full circle. Starting at Suffolk College as a Pre-nursing student who qualified in 1978, then as a mature student, then as a lecturer and as Associate Dean and now to complete the journey returning home to clinical practice, to be recognised by the now Suffolk University with an Honorary Doctorate where my career and passion for nursing started 50 years ago is just fantastic, a true honour and I feel very humbled and overwhelmed by it.
However, I could not have achieved any of this without an amazing team, a work ‘family’ who have a totally ‘can do attitude’ and have the same passion for their community care as I do.
Dr Catherine Ryan MBE
(Photo above: Cathy and her dog, Grace)
Graduation Thank You Speech
“I started as a ‘pinkie’ on the pre nursing course, we used to go to the hospital once a week to experience life on the wards, wearing the most awful bright pink nylon uniforms. We were definitely seen and not heard! Most of those ‘taster’ days were spent either in the sluice room washing bed pans or hidden away making beds. I used to receive electric shocks from the iron bed steads, as our awful overalls created static, so I was literally shocked into joining the NHS.
“I left school with very little in the way of qualifications, but realised throughout my career that actually education was a passport, it opened doors, it gave me confidence and allowed me to debate, discuss and challenge, systems, process and decision makers to work holistically for my community, patients and families, to support my colleagues, develop services and implement changes, enabling our patients and service users to receive the best care possible.
“You wonderful newly qualified nurses are just starting out… you are our hope, our future, in these turbulent times in health and social care and you will face many challenges, frustrations, incredible highs and some pretty shattering lows. BUT if you have the passion in your heart, the determination to make a difference, the dedication to go that extra mile, you will make that difference.
“Don’t be in a rush to climb the career ladder, make sure you have a great foundation, learn the art of nursing… don’t be too posh to wash, what you may think of as basic care, think of it as essential care. Listen to those who have experience and love for the job, find yourself a ‘role model’, someone that has standards and expectations that match yours. Follow your passion, give the most you can, listen to your head sometimes, don’t be disappointed if you get knocked back or feel let down, look for new ways of succeeding. There are many ways to get around a wall, be creative, be innovative and true to yourself. Most of all enjoy it. Nursing is a wonderful career; you will receive as much as you give. Don’t lose the passion, we all need it!
“How wonderful and unexpected to receive this Honour, and it will give me further impetus to carry on doing the work I love and continue to support the next generation of health and social care workers to come…”
Dr Catherine Ryan QN, MBE
This is an edited version of Dr Ryan’s speech given at the University of Suffolk, October 2023.