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Interview: Hannah Pool, district clinical lead, St John Ambulance

24 April 2020

‘St John Ambulance have changed all their activities overnight’

I’m a paediatric registrar, currently working in Brighton. I’ve been working in paediatrics for six years, and I’ll be moving to Alder Hey Children’s Hospital, in Liverpool, to complete my two-year, emergency-medicine sub-speciality training in September.

I work as a volunteer for St John Ambulance [SJA] around busy clinical shifts. As district clinical lead, I’m responsible for ensuring we maintain high standards of clinical care in all areas of working, but particularly at events. I also support health-care professionals and student health-care professionals who volunteer for us, as well as ensuring we have a programme of continuing professional development for them.

Currently, I’m seconded by my hospital trust to work at the NHS Nightingale Hospital in London. We’re caring for patients requiring intensive support and ventilation. I’m working there as a doctor alongside a large multi-professional team, which also includes our St John Ambulance volunteers.

St John Ambulance have changed all their activities overnight. Our usual work mostly involves workplace training and event first-aid cover, as well as a commercial ambulance operations service, which supports local NHS trusts — for example, with a bariatric ambulance and paediatric retrieval teams — and some community health-care work-streams, including night-time-economy support, homeless services, and a bathing service for the elderly.

With the suspension of public events and training, our volunteers are receiving additional training to support clinical teams in emergency departments and the NHS Nightingale hospitals, as well as providing ambulances and crews to work alongside the local ambulance trusts.

I’m incredibly proud of the way our organisation has mobilised in such a short time to provide such essential support to the community.

Funding has been a concern, because our income through workplace training and event cover has dried up. St John Ambulance is launching a fund-raising campaign to help us support the NHS and local communities, and our CEO has rallied volunteers to participate in fund-raising. He raised £2000 himself to shave off his beard. He’s been representing the voluntary sector, providing information to central government, and there’s been an announcement of financial support, which was gratefully received.

It’s a cliché to say I became a doctor to help people, but actually it’s true. As paediatricians, we’re able to support children and their families on both the best and worst days of their lives — that’s a privilege. After all this time, I still feel joy when passing a newborn baby to their parents for the first time. It’s also satisfying knowing that you’ve been able to listen to a family who are struggling, and to be able to provide assistance.

I was drawn into the St John Ambulance at the University of Sussex freshers’ fair. Before I knew it, I was running the student unit, and I haven’t looked back since. I attended events which were a huge amount of fun, and made friends.

Working at events is very different to the organised clinical environment in a hospital. I’ve learnt a lot from the challenges that this brings, and from colleagues who come from many different backgrounds and professions.

I get a lot of satisfaction as the event clinical lead, when seeing safe and effective clinical care at events with a team who are enjoying themselves, and knowing this reduces the burden from the local health economy. We’re volunteers, but never amateur. I’m proud of the professional service we provide.

I spent a six-month period working at a large mission hospital in Zambia. It was a demanding role, working with limited resources and in an unfamiliar clinical setting for me. I had to adapt and learn to rely on the team I lived and worked with, and that developed my resilience for working in challenging settings.

Our early-morning Sunday services were a time of peace, where time stood still for a few hours and we were able to reflect. It’s the time in my life when I have felt closest to God.

The most surprising thing for me in this pandemic has been the ability of clinicians and organisations to adapt. Hospital trusts have had to entirely rework rotas, clinical pathways, and hospital structures, and create intensive-care capacity by changing the function of teams. St John Ambulance have changed their work to primarily support the NHS in different capacities. Even my local pub is now providing a takeaway service and an online shop for the village.

I’m fortunate to have a family who’ve supported me throughout my life. My parents can never do enough to provide a listening ear or practical help. I’m happiest when I’m sitting round a table sharing a meal with them.

Working in paediatrics, I’m even more acutely aware of the importance of a stable home environment. It makes me angry that not all children have the opportunities to live in a loving, stable, and supportive environment, and be able to fulfil their dreams. I’ve always been surrounded by love.

Currently, I live in East Sussex with my hamster, who is called Maddie. She’s a bit of a diva, and soon lets me know what she thinks about something.

I was brought up in a Christian household, and attended junior church throughout my childhood; but I don’t think I knew what this meant till I left home. My first real experience of God and the Church was being welcomed into the Methodist family in Brighton when I arrived for university. I couldn’t have received a warmer welcome.

That church has provided emotional support through my time at university, and subsequently while I’ve been working in the area. I’ve also been a member of the amateur musical-theatre group which is part of the Methodist circuit, but never on stage. I’m a musician, and I’ve been part of the band (and chief band jelly-baby supplier) for ten years. For me, music is a spiritual experience, whether listening or participating in its creation.

I play the piano, and it’s always a source of relaxation and a time to wind down. There’s not much better than a Mendelssohn “Song Without Words” to soothe the soul. I love live music, particularly choral music, and I head to the Proms each year, sitting on the floor up in the Gallery. The sound of the fifth movement of Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony almost overwhelms me with emotion.

My proudest achievement is definitely becoming the event clinical lead for Brighton Pride. It needs intense resources to provide effective clinical care for those attending, as well as focusing on ways to reduce the workload for the NHS. I developed a pathway for the event to ensure our first-aiders could provide safe care for people who are intoxicated. That’s since been taken into the SJA national clinical guidelines. I have an amazing team of health-care professionals who provide exceptional clinical care, while being able to enjoy themselves in a rainbow way.

Accepting my job at Alder Hey required a lot of courage. I’d never been to Liverpool or the area, didn’t know anyone there, and I’m happy and established in Sussex. I’ve received such encouragement and support from family, friends, and colleagues; so I’m now looking forward to it — although I’m still a little terrified about starting somewhere new.

I would like to work abroad again. I’m not sure when or where. I’ve always thought I might spend some time working for Médicins Sans Frontières or a similar organisation. Maybe that will happen.

Working with colleagues who want to improve people’s lives, and who selflessly give their time voluntarily to support their community, gives me hope. These are people who are able to fill me with joy and positivity, and I always hope that the world will continue to improve for those who live in it.

I pray most for the ability to provide quiet support and peace for those I work with. “I will hold the Christ-light for you, in the night time of your fear. I will hold my hand out to you, speak the peace you long to hear.” That’s the essence of what I do.

I’d choose to be locked in a church with Mozart: first, so I could try to channel some of his musical genius, but mostly so he could play me his sublime music, which is truly spiritual.


Dr Hannah Pool was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.


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