Alex Leach: “For me a nurse is not what you do, it’s what you are”

In celebration of International Nurses Day 2021, we have collated a blog series showcasing the amazing nurses that we are privileged to have as part of our team. Here, Alex Leach, Deputy Director of Innovation and Growth, reflects on her career as a nurse…

I tell people several times a week “I’m a nurse” but in reality, I haven’t actually “nursed” anyone for over 25 years. However, for me a nurse is not what you do, it’s what you are. I am a nurse, and will always be a nurse and it almost feels like I have nurse written through me like a stick of rock!

I don’t actually remember exactly why I chose nursing for a career. I loved biology at school, wanted to work with people, didn’t want to be a teacher like my mother and I knew I wasn’t an all-A grades student like my brother, who was a Doctor. However, I did want to go to University and when I learnt that there were a few universities starting to offer a Nursing degree in the mid-1980s, I thought it sounded like a good option. I also think my parent’s quite liked the idea of a “doctor and nurse matching set” for their offspring and therefore may have nudged me in that direction!

I grew up in a small Hampshire village and went to an all-girls school so it was a bit of a shock to the system when my parents dropped me off at my halls of residence for Kings College London in a slightly dodgy part of SW London. My degree was a mix of academic study at historical campuses on the Kings Road, Kensington and the Strand and also working on the wards of St George’s Hospital in Tooting. Living in London was a real education and the rich and diverse population of Tooting even more so! I loved it! I learnt so much more than the science and skills needed to get my degree and RGN qualification – I learnt how to work with others; I learnt from my colleagues, other professionals and my patients and, most of all, I gained an understanding of the importance of compassion and treating each person as an individual. I found myself fascinated by haematology and infectious diseases and worked on wards looking after AIDS patients in those early days of the late 80’s when we knew so little about the disease, and an HIV diagnosis was a guaranteed death sentence. But my memories of many of those patients, and their friends and families, have stayed with me and it was such an honour to have been part of their care.

After having nursed for about 10 years and rising to the level of Ward Manager, I married a paramedic and our desire to start a family and see each other occasionally led me to apply for a job I saw advertised in the Nursing Times as a Nurse Advisor. I didn’t get that job, but the same company offered me a job as a sales person and this was the start of a long career working across the MedTech industry. I sold everything from operating tables, diagnostic tests, wound care and continence products. I visited care homes and ambulance depots, hospitals and hospices. I stood at the shoulder of famous surgeons and showed them how to use a new product and showed patients how to measure their own glucose levels using a home-based test. This was not nursing in the true sense of the word but I used my nursing skills every day. It helped me understand the needs of my customers and allowed me to speak in their language. If I say so myself, I was a good sales person, and my training was a very large part of why I was.

As I progressed and moved companies, I worked in sales management and marketing and my clinical training and experience helped me to navigate procurement, legislation and the complexity of the NHS. And through this all, even though I ended up working twice as long in industry as I did on the wards, I still saw myself as fundamentally a nurse.

My current role within the West of England AHSN as Deputy Director of Innovation and Growth feels like the most perfect fusion of all my experiences. I engage daily with clinicians and commissioners, innovators and industry. I feel so privileged to be able to use my clinical and industry experience to help drive impactful innovations across the NHS that will improve patient’s lives. My commercial experience is so important and gives me the ability to view projects from both the NHS’s and the company’s perspective.

I do occasionally miss my practical nursing days. I enjoyed working at the coalface and caring for patients. I especially loved the older ladies and gentlemen and if I managed to raise a smile from them, it always made my day. I do also kind of miss the uniform with my silver buckle and frilly hat which was such a badge of honour on qualifying! However, I really love what I do now and without leaving nursing and working in industry, my current role would not have been possible for me.

I may not actually nurse anymore but I am still a proud nurse and I think I will always be; after all, it is not what I do…. it is what I am.

Alex Leach is Deputy Director of Innovation and Growth at West of England AHSN

Posted on May 11, 2021

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