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Interview: Judith Ellis, professor of nursing

13 May 2022

‘Being a retired returner allowed me freedom to consider what mattered most to the patient’

My father was a lawyer, my sister was destined for medicine, but, from my earliest years, I loved interacting with people. I didn’t want to just have brief encounters with clients or patients: I wanted to care for, and walk with, them through difficult times. So I chose nursing.

I entered paediatrics because of the complexity and wonder of child development. I found I was adept at accurately assessing children’s physical and psycho-social needs, and I thrived on supporting whole families, and the rapid decision-making needed when treating children, who can deteriorate so fast.

I still first and foremost consider myself a nurse. For nine years in my twenties, I had the joy of being a paediatric ward sister, working through sad but also such fun times, alongside a team of nurses, doctors, other health professionals, and the families. I enjoyed guiding and educating new nurses. I thrived on being ultimately responsible for the quality of care received by every child and family, and making it a great place to be for the whole staff team.

I’ve always felt a true honour to be trusted by parents to care for their beloved children. I was particularly proud to become director of nursing at Great Ormond Street and, later, CEO of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, which trains paediatric doctors and advises policy-makers on child health.

Even when I entered academia, I spent half my time in practice, and, when I held management positions, I grasped every opportunity to work clinically on the wards. I was determined to understand what challenges front-line nurses were addressing, and to maintain my clinical skills so I could roll my sleeves up and help when needed.

I vividly remember the children I have cared for, and from them I have learnt so much — to live each day, whatever the challenges, with joy and positivity, and to never miss an opportunity to truly listen and support.

This was brought home to me one day on the ward, when, in my eagerness to complete drug rounds and complete paperwork, I didn’t make time for a ten-year-old who was sad and scared. He died that night. Wards are busy, but this not only changed my day-to-day practice, but, for the next six years, I spent four weeks of my annual leave leading trips for terminally ill children to California Disney, where time to listen was a given.

About 30 years ago, my global activity began when I was cajoled into visiting Uganda to teach paediatric nurses. At first, I was overwhelmed with a feeling of global injustice, working on wards with no equipment or drugs, where 52 per cent of children died. However, I rapidly realised that I was learning as much as I was offering, and, since then, I’ve grasped every opportunity to work in partnership with low-income-country colleagues. I never cease to be inspired by their selfless dedication, their innovative use of meagre resources, and uncomplaining, faith-based approach to life.

In 2018, I decided to retire to concentrate on my work as chair of the Tropical Health and Education Trust, a charity that manages partnerships between low-income-country health services and our NHS. The last two years, I’ve witnessed the power of such partnerships and of interconnected solidarity as we have all faced the global pandemic.

I caught Covid early on, during an overseas visit. Having recovered, I realised that, though I’m over 60, I needed to return to front-line nursing, and signed up to work at the Nightingale Hospital in Manchester. I cared for patients with a vast range of conditions who had tested positive. Some were in extremis; some had to be cared for till they could go home. I led a team of young dentists who’d qualified but couldn’t start their foundation year while dental practices were closed.

Those young people were brilliant. Nothing was too much trouble for them as they fought to rekindle the spark of life in many patients who arrived exhausted and scared. They spent hours holding patients’ hands, playing music they liked, video-calling, and liaising with families and faith leaders, bringing in specifically liked food, like crushed pineapple.

These young people hadn’t been indoctrinated in the NHS hierarchical system; so they didn’t hesitate to challenge NHS decisions if they went against a patient’s or family’s wishes. Being a retired returner also allowed me freedom to always consider what mattered most to the patient, not restricted by rigidly complying with policies.

Most of the dentists weren’t practising Christians. They could not join in as I sang “Crown him with many crowns” with on-screen clergy and patients on Ascension Day, but they certainly displayed Christian values. They developed lifelong skills; they would never again fear treating elderly dementia patients or hesitate in compassionately breaking bad news.

It was life-changing for me, too. Although I was tired with working over 40 hours a week and living in a hotel, it was a time that rejuvenated my pride in all my NHS colleagues. When the Nightingale closed, I returned home to help care for a terminally ill close relative, and, with encouragement from friends, spent lockdown hours writing my autobiography: Flights of a Nightingale.

I’ve tried to live according to the teachings and example of Jesus as God’s Son, and by God’s holy word in the Bible. Everyone is my neighbour, worthy of respect, deserving of my best efforts. Without my faith I’d have struggled to nurse, to accept “thy will be done”, particularly caring for dying children.

Each night, I pray for strength to accept what I may never understand, and for God to always be with me and guide me.

Throughout my childhood, I felt safe, loved, and important. Conversation was encouraged, opinions were listened to and respected, and inappropriate behaviour was firmly but fairly corrected. This made me decisive, and prepared me to be interested in all, to respect all, and to feel comfortable and self-confident.

I’ve remained single and live alone— apart from the dog and wonderful friends, and very frequent visitors. After 30 years in London, I now live in a Lancashire village, near my sister and her family. I still chair various health-service-related working groups, and my global charity work is balanced with village activities and serving the church as a choir member, parish safeguarding officer, school governor, and deputy churchwarden.

I never had a moment of revelation, just a steady deepening of my faith. My parents were not churchgoers but, from around seven years old, my sister and I went to the local United Reformed church. We initially joined the junior choir, and, later, I helped with the under-fives’ Sunday school. The kindness and inclusivity of everyone there began my faith journey.

Each evening I read and reflect on passages from the Bible, pray for those I love, and thank the Lord for the day. There’s always something to be thankful for. Each morning, I pray for guidance for the day ahead, a routine from my Nightingale-nurse training. The more complex and chaotic my life has become, wherever in the world I’ve found myself, I’ve appreciated the consistency and familiarity of the Anglican churches’ traditions.

I’m also fascinated by other faiths. I should, and do by example, try to bring all to Christ, but I respect others’ beliefs.

Injustice, selfishness, greed, and lies make me angry.

I’m happiest with family and friends, and when visiting, exploring and understanding others’ cultures.

In beautiful countryside or city streets, hearing birdsong makes me pause and smile.

I certainly have hope for the future, as I see overseas health professionals’ commitment to caring for others, whether in the midst of a pandemic or conflict. I pray most often for them, and for my friends and family.

I’d choose to be locked in a church with Terry Waite. When he was kidnapped in Lebanon, in 1987, I lived near his home, and would pass signs on his church reminding me to pray for his release. I’ve always wanted to meet this incredibly humble, faithful man, who risked his life to help others. His humanitarian activity took him to many countries I’ve also visited, and he appears to have always sought to understand and forgive. He’s inspired me for so many years.


Judith Ellis was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

Flights of a Nightingale: Memoirs of a nurse’s wider exploits is independently published in paperback and on Kindle: 9-798-74103-170-4.

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