“The highlight of my career…” ponders Sarah Gardner, clinical lead for tissue viability at Oxford Health NHS Foundation Trust.
“It has to be the work I brought to Oxford Health around improving leg ulcer care, and the difference it makes when we apply it correctly. Even now, when I see a patient who has improved on the back of my decision making, and joy it has brought to their life, I get quite emotional.”
Sarah’s 39-year career in the NHS is coming to a close on July 24 when she retires. She will pack the few belongings she still has in Witney and move to the Lake District where she always dreamt of retiring to, close to the mountains. But she is not going to abandon her clinical specialty entirely.
“It took me thirty years to get to do my dream job!” she says. So, she will work as an independent tissue viability advisor and educator – although she will make sure there’s time for gardening, hiking and wild water swimming, too.
Sarah initially trained as a state enrolled nurse in 1981 in Wirral and found her passion in her first ever job at the dermatology unit.
“I saw people with terrible leg ulcers, in pain and distress, and I thought, this is awful,” she remembers. Ever since then she has pursued to improve patient care in this particular area.
“Wound care takes up to 40 to 50 per cent of district nurses’ workload. I would question myself: why is this, when the management of these conditions isn’t actually complicated and the suffering is huge. I felt that leg ulcers weren’t getting the standard of care and attention they should have – nationally, that is”, she says.
“I saw that wounds weren’t ‘sexy’. If you had cancer or diabetes or a respiratory condition, these are big conditions on which a lot money was being spent. With wounds it was up to nurses to make the difference. It was the suffering and the fact that we can make such a difference that attracted me. You can absolutely turn people’s lives around,” she says.
In 1985 work took Sarah to Surrey where she did a conversion course to become a state registered nurse. Surrey is also where she met her husband Pete, and together they moved to Oxford in 1987. She worked at the short stay ward at the John Radcliffe Hospital and then did her district nurse training in 1990.
“And I’ve been in the community ever since. I worked as a district nurse for 18 years, based in Bicester, before I came to tissue viability, my dream job,” she says. Eventually she did a masters degree in tissue viability.
Early on Sarah got into her other professional passion: education. During her time as a district nurse she worked as a community practice teacher, working with Oxford Brookes University to train district nurses, and has carried on her teaching to tissue viability.
“I absolutely love teaching and being able to inspire others. I have managed to put some of my energy and passion into national work with NHS England. It’s been a privilege to be part of that and influence national thinking. And I will carry on my national work. There has to improvement in wound care for patients,” she states.
Sarah’s educational interest has extended to public health, too, and she’s been involved in the national Legs Matter campaign which aims to raise awareness of leg ulcers, how to prevent them and how to care for them.
“People think that leg ulcers are an older person’s condition, but problems could have started decades earlier. We need to educate everybody about this condition to recognise the signs, for instance if they start getting swelling in their legs. If it doesn’t resolve overnight, it’s not normal and you need to seek advice from a nurse or a GP. Or if you get a cut on your leg, and it doesn’t heal in a couple of weeks, seek help.
“I also want ‘Joe Public’ to recognise that if they are receiving care and their wound is not getting better, their care may not be optimal. I know that it is difficult for patients to challenge clinical care because they don’t want to offend. But through the Legs Matter campaign we want people to challenge – constructively.”
Leg care is also about optimising your health: keeping your weight down, managing your diabetes more efficiently, getting some exercise, looking after your skin. Sarah suggests: Look at the Legs Matter website: all the information is up there.
It sounds like Sarah will have plenty of work for the consultancy of her own.
“I hope so!” she laughs. “But not too much! Hopefully I’ll be able to pick and choose what I really love. And I do want to have some time for my gardening and my house. And I’m hoping to do some wild water swimming. I’m going to learn the crawl properly and buy myself a wetsuit and swim in the Ullswater Lake.”
Her new home will be in the village of Water Millock. Sarah hadn’t been planning to retire quite yet, not for a couple years, but on a hiking trip “the stars were aligned” she laughs, when her husband saw an ad for a house for sale a stone’s throw away from where they were staying.
“And the rest, as they say, is history.”
“It ticked all our boxes. It’s a big old Cumbrian Lakeland house which dates back to 1746, and it’s got a little cottage attached to it. It’s a mile from Ullswater Lake, surrounded by fells and nine acres of land and a lot of garden. And it doesn’t always rain in the Lake District!”
Despite the call of the fells, Sarah will be visiting Oxfordshire regularly. Her grown-up daughter and son live here – and so does her hairdresser of 30 years. Perhaps most importantly, Sarah’s first grandchild Seth, her son’s son, came to the world in February.
Colleagues, those who love peace, quiet and mountains, may also make their way to the shores of Ullswater Lake: Sarah and Pete’s cottage is going be turned into a luxury holiday home.
“It will have a copper bath, a big wood burner, peace and quiet, it’ll be a five star! And I’m gonna give NHS workers a 10 per cent discount, for all their hard work during the COVID.”