Nursing staff remember

As the UK stops to remember sacrifices made in conflict this Remembrance Day, two health care assistants serving in the Queen Alexandra’s Royal Army Nursing Corps (QARANC) reflect on their essential work.

Kirsty Todd has perhaps seen more of the world than many health care assistants (HCAs). Afghanistan, Kenya, Oman, Sierra Leone – she’s been all over. But this Remembrance Day she’ll be in Durham, proudly on parade as a serving soldier.

Sgt Todd

Sergeant Todd first joined the army in 1999, serving as a chef for five years. Then she left and retrained as a sports coach, working a lot with primary schools, encouraging young children to engage in exercise.

But she missed the military and looked into ways of combining her interest in sport and health with army life. In 2009, she signed up again, this time as an HCA, and she now serves in 5 Armoured Medical Regiment, based at Catterick Garrison, North Yorkshire.

“While I was doing my sports coaching I felt I could make a difference in helping people become healthier,” she says. “I really felt I could support them medically and fitness-wise, encouraging people to look after their own wellbeing.”

An experience like that makes you appreciate what’s important

Regular HCAs often combine their military role with NHS duties, working alongside civilian colleagues for much of the week while also training with the army. “The only difference is the uniform,” Kirsty says. “Ours has our rank on it when completing clinical duties with our NHS partners.”

But army HCAs also deploy to other countries. In Kirsty’s case, she has served twice in Afghanistan but has also helped manage the Ebola outbreak in Sierra Leone and been deployed to Kenya. “That was an exercise where we delivered primary health care to the local civilians.

"Such 'hearts and minds' exercises and defence engagement tasks are a fantastic eye-opener," says Kirsty. 

“When you treat patients in Kenya, they’ll be walking for hours and hours to come and see us. An experience like that makes you appreciate what’s important.”

A variety of roles

By coincidence, Private Daniel Freeth also served as an army chef before retraining as an HCA and joining the Queen Alexandra’s Royal Army Nursing Corps. Daniel is currently serving at Joint Hospital Group (South East) within Frimley Health NHS Foundation Trust. 

“I served about four years as a chef but wasn’t getting any job satisfaction at all,” Daniel says. “I really wasn’t enjoying it and was getting ready to leave the army. It was only after speaking to someone who was in the medical services that I realised health care assistant was a job within the army.”

We could deploy at the drop of a hat and provide a good standard of care

“On a day-to-day basis when assigned to a clinical unit or completing clinical duties we don’t do anything different from what the NHS staff do. But on Fridays we have a military day. We dress as soldiers again and go through our military skills – army training, weapons systems and other skills we might not be able to practise in the NHS.” 

He enjoys the variety the two roles offer. “There’s no other career like it,” he says. “One day you could be working alongside NHS staff caring for an elderly patient and the very next day you’ll be out on exercise, running around with camouflage cream on. 

“My unit is very good at giving us that sort of training. Although we don’t use it every day, we could deploy at the drop of a hat to provide a high standard of care.

“We can work in a variety of settings - clinical units partnered with the NHS, field units, primary care or instructors in training units -  to use all our skills as soldiers and HCAs.”

Is he interested in further training and perhaps becoming a registered nurse?

“The army does try to push you as far as you can go with qualifications and I think that will probably be my next step. But then if you want to stay as an HCA there are a lot of avenues open to you.”

Commemorating and remembering 

Daniel regards Remembrance Day as “probably the biggest day in the military calendar.” 

“It’s so important we don’t forget,” he says.

And like Kirsty, he will also be on parade commemorating the armistice.

“Being able to pull on your military uniform and remember, that’s very important to us. I don’t think words can sum up what it means to anyone in the military."

RCN Defence Nursing Forum

HCAs are an integral part of the nursing team and very welcome in the Defence Nursing Forum, says RCN Professional Lead for Acute, Emergency and Critical Care Suman Shrestha. 

“The forum helps ensure that the voice of defence nursing is heard at all levels. It also provides plenty of resources and study events to support the professional development of all nursing staff, HCAs included, who work in the armed forces,” he says.

“Producing guidance for members, undertaking research, organising conferences and providing an opportunity to network with colleagues across the military – the forum offers so much. I would urge all HCAs serving in the forces to consider joining.”

The Defence Nursing Forum represents nurses and HCAs working in the Armed Forces and Civil Service, facilitating communication and networking with the RCN and providing professional resources, study days and support. Find out more about the forum and join.  

RCN representation for military members

Gary Kirwan, RCN National Officer and Team Leader in Employment Relations, says: “RCN members who work in the “uniformed” – that is, not civilians – part of the Ministry of Defence historically have not been able to have workplace representation from the RCN.

“But in the last two to three years there seems to have been a change of policy, where some bases have allowed RCN officers into the workplace to represent members.

“If you’re in the armed forces and are a member of the RCN, you can join the RCN Defence Nursing Forum, which has strong links into all three arms of the armed forces.”

Words by Daniel Allen

Photograph of Sgt Todd by Steve Baker

Read next...