I became a Practice Nurse in 1997 straight from Intensive Care Burns and Trauma. I was not really sure how this role would develop and how many opportunities it would give. Now, over 20 years later, I have used my skills to travel the world helping others and support fellow nurses, mentor and develop my own skills every single day.

Practice Nursing gave me the confidence I needed to believe in myself and step outside my comfort zone. Many know that working in a GP practice has many challenges, the greatest being able to work autonomously. So leaving ITU where a team can be called at any time, to a much smaller team in primary care, I realised that it was easier to learn a lot more about the things that really interested me such as Diabetes, HTN, CKD and travel health. This allowed me to transfer these skills across the globe.

New Opportunities

At the age of 40, I decided that I could put these skills to even better use when I had the opportunity to volunteer as a nurse for a Jumbulance group to Lourdes in France (a place of pilgrimage for sick people) providing 24-hour care with perhaps another nurse or GP.  That was the start of a rollercoaster of opportunities that has seen me travel to Lourdes 11 times caring for adults and children, India twice, Brazil three times, Germany, Poland, and Kenya twice.

I have worked with fellow Queen’s Nurse, Dr Julie Green acting Dean of Keele University, who has encouraged pre and postgraduate nurses to volunteer in Lourdes. I have met the most inspirational and exceptional nurses who have helped teach me how to deal with the most unlikely situations. A child impaled by an elephant’s tusk left with life-changing conditions to a newborn baby failing to thrive.

Each year before travelling to Lourdes, we have a church service where the hands of all the volunteers are blessed. God gave me the gift of caring and with my hands, my heart and compassion, I can care for those most in need. I have met Pope Francis twice, which for any Christian is an immense privilege, but it was nursing that gave me the opportunity, as I supported disabled adults to travel to Rome. I have had many doors opened for me and find it difficult to say no if I can help.

This year I travelled to Lourdes at Easter with HCPT (Handicapped Children’s Pilgrimage Trust) group – over 5000 people. 50 different groups from all over the world bring sick and disabled children to enjoy a week with the most dedicated volunteer nurses and carers who spend every waking moment making it a fun-filled and spiritual experience. I travelled with group 148; we had children with cerebral palsy and autism and one child who was profoundly deaf, who taught us how to sign. Another new skill, never too old to learn.

I worked alongside Dr Helen Young chief nurse of HCPT/Across. The smiles of the children’s faces, the shy children becoming braver, the fun, we visited a zoo, had a train ride around the town squirting water at fellow HCPT pilgrims, lots of laughter, dressing up and Easter egg hunts, it was an amazing experience. I met a volunteer who had Type 1 Diabetes with an insulin pump, who taught me what it is like to live with Diabetes every day and the struggles she faced, and how she was able to volunteer on what is a physically challenging week.

Personal reflection

I give vocational talks to schools, sharing my career and the huge variety of career choices within nursing, however being biased, Practice Nursing is the best! I am a proud Queen’s Nurse and pride myself on being professional but I also dyed my hair pink to raise money and for fun with the children in Lourdes.

I am also a community volunteer for Mary’s Meals and Youth Minister. They say give a busy women a job and she will get it done. I made a promise once when in Lourdes that I will continue to help others for as long as my legs would carry me; I feel that I have been given so much that I am giving a little in return.

I have had my own challenges with my youngest daughter having Autism and all the struggles and worries that brings to a family. I have learnt through her that love and listening are the most valuable tools you have. She has broken my heart at times and I have struggled to continue caring for others when feeling I have failed her. She has always encouraged me to do my volunteering and we chat about my experiences, relating them to how I have seen the face of God in the people I have met.  She has made me a better person and nurse and enlightened me to help other people who have children with Autism.

I know many people do lots of different volunteering roles and go above and beyond for both their patients and communities. I would encourage anyone who has not had the opportunity to volunteer, experience it at least once and you will gain so much. It will not only enrich you but you will see another side to people; they will surprise you with their resilience to cope with some unbelievable things and yet teach us to remain humble.

Sue Nightingale, Queen’s Nurse


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