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They entered nursing because they were passionate about caring for others... now after graduating early they've joined the frontline in fight against Covid-19

Final year healthcare students across Northern Ireland have been finishing their studies early to help in the battle against coronavirus. Lisa Smyth asks two newly qualified nurses about working in such unprecedented times


Student nurse Victoria Booth and at work in the Causeway Hospital

Student nurse Victoria Booth and at work in the Causeway Hospital

Dervla Thomson

Dervla Thomson

Student nurse Victoria Booth and at work in the Causeway Hospital

Victoria Booth (21) lives with her mum Jayne (48) and dad Rab (60) in Garvagh. She is working on a surgical ward in the Causeway Hospital in Coleraine. She says:

I do remember in primary school wanting to be a teacher, but that soon changed and I don't think I've ever really seen myself do anything else but nursing from a very young age. Since I was a child, my parents and grandparents all said I would make a great nurse and I suppose I followed their advice.

I think I love caring for people and get a real sense of accomplishment from helping people - I want to make them feel like a person, like they matter.

I love looking after people, and older people as well - I think they're just amazing and I love hearing about all the different backgrounds and the lives they've lived.

I did level three social care and my teachers really pushed me to apply for university.

I'm not sure I would have gone for it if it hadn't been for them - I suppose they help you see the potential you have in yourself.

I wouldn't have had a lot of confidence, but that's all changed with nursing.

When I went for my interview for my degree, I was so nervous I can't even remember who was in front of me in the room, but I have learnt over the years that it's most important to just be yourself.

You have to just show them who you really are, it's like when a person is in hospital, they want you to treat them like a person.

I really wanted to go to Ulster University at Magee to do nursing, just from being up there on the open day and I stayed up there the first year and travelled the next two years.

Everyone wanted to go out partying every night, like every student does, but it was too much for me because I had a class at nine o'clock every morning.

The degree was really great, it was a lot of hard work, but everyone on the course was really, really good.

I still remember the first patient I ever saw - you never forget them.

I was actually supposed to do my final placement at Antrim Area Hospital, working with the infection control team, which would obviously have been a brilliant learning opportunity, but I'm sure they're very busy at the moment.

The idea of starting work early was scary but I'm really happy to be out on the frontline.

It gives you a real sense that you're part of a team, you're part of the NHS family working together.

At university one day we were called in and our lecturers told us they were thinking of getting us to start early. Everyone had mixed emotions.

You worry about what you're going to be asked to do once you get started and I was a bit more worried about my family and their health - obviously they mean so much to me.

Family is all that really matters.

Obviously there are going to be a lot of deaths, it just feels like it could be a type of nursing that we haven't trained for, but you have to take pride in the fact that we'll probably be the last people those patients are going to see.

We have to remember to do our best, it's a huge responsibility and all you can do is ensure that they have the most peaceful death, that we're there to hold their hand and maybe get their family on FaceTime - it's really about thinking outside the box.

I did question beforehand whether I was mad putting myself up for this and I felt very overwhelmed on the first day.

There were a lot of tears but essentially this is what I have signed up for, what I'm passionate about.

My parents have been so supportive, I've always been quite independent from a young age and they trust my judgment.

I'd been on the surgical ward before and I'd enjoyed my time there so much so I thought I would chance my arm and email them and it's been going really, really well.

It's such a great team to work with and my mentor is fantastic, she's so thorough in everything she does and is a fantastic nurse.

We have people come in with perforated bowels, pancreatitis, after car accidents, anyone who needs surgery really, and we're going to have Covid patients.

I haven't been fit-tested for the mask yet so I haven't been working with them directly - I have been supporting the other nurses and managing other patients on the ward.

Every nurse is a human being, we all have the same emotions and even for the nurses who have been working for 40 years, this is the first time they've faced anything like this.

It all became a lot more real for me on the first day when I arrived at the door and was told to put a mask on.

It has been tough at times, having to go in with a smile on your face and have a positive attitude, but the support from everyone else is amazing.

I've also been really lucky because a family friend has offered me the use of a house that is attached to her house.

I go back there and get showered, I wash my uniform.

I think I'm actually going to have to go and move in there permanently eventually, but we will see.

I've also had to stop seeing my boyfriend Alan, which is really hard.

It's so frustrating when people don't stay at home because nurses have left their families, a lot of them have children they aren't able to see, so it's really frustrating to think that people are being asked to stay at home and they won't do that."

Dervla Thomson (21) lives in Kilrea with her mum Mary (53) and sister Molly (19). She is working in Holywell Hospital in Antrim.


Dervla Thomson

Dervla Thomson

Dervla Thomson

She says:

I don't really know what made me think of nursing. When I was in my fifth year at school, I didn't really know what I wanted to do but we had to make a choice about where to go for placement and I decided to go to a care home.

I spent five days there and I loved it, I loved working with people and I loved the caring aspect of it, so it took off from there.

For some reason I had always been interested in mental health, I'm not sure why, it's not that I had any issues and neither had anyone in my family, but it's something that I was always interested in.

I was offered a place at Ulster University and I'm so glad that I ended up doing mental health nursing, I've loved it.

It was the first time I'd lived away from home so it was a good experience. I did my first year in halls and my second year in a student house and moved back home for my final year.

The way the course worked, it was half in university and half out on placements and I quite quickly realised that I was younger than most other people.

Going out on placement and meeting patients for the first time was scary in the first year but the nurses that I worked with were really nice.

I think that they realised how young I was as well and they never pushed me to do anything I didn't feel confident in doing. It was such an invaluable opportunity - you're out meeting patients and you pick up your own way of talking to people, it all comes with time.

In my second year I spent some time working in the addiction service and I did that on a hospital ward and in the community. There are some really sad cases but because I worked in hospital and in the community, I got to see people's journeys from them being admitted to when they were doing better.

I was in my final year when the pandemic started, but we had no idea what was going to happen and then we got a call in March telling us all to come in because they wanted to talk to us about the Covid situation. When we arrived, they started to show us all the personal protective equipment (PPE) and telling us they were planning on bringing forward our graduation and that we could join other nurses on the frontline.

We were all just sitting there in a bit of shock and they kept bringing out more and more equipment and it was like something you would see in a movie.

One of the lecturers was explaining everything and the other lecturer was putting on all the PPE.

They told us we didn't have to do it, that it was entirely voluntary and they talked through it all a bit more.

They said that if the lockdown came in, it would be our last day in university - and we haven't been back since.

I think everyone was apprehensive about going for it, but I felt like I just had to go for it.

I talked it through with my mum beforehand and she said it was a really big step, but she's so proud, in fact everyone has been so supportive.

I was a bit worried before that people would think I was mad for putting myself at risk, but I've had some lovely messages from people - I haven't had any negative comments.

Still, I'm not going to lie, I was worried before I started, I think everyone was worried.

You're going into the complete unknown and I was really nervous driving up in the morning, I had to make myself stop thinking about it.

I've been placed in Tobernaveen Centre at Holywell Hospital in Antrim and I'm not working with anyone with Covid-19, but we still have to wear a certain amount of PPE.

It's an inpatient mental health ward and you have to explain to all the patients why you're wearing the PPE and that it's there for their safety, you really do have to make sure you reassure them.

I'm working with people with dementia, and my granny had dementia so I've a bit of experience of it. It's a terrible disease but, like all the way through my degree, the staff I am working with now are brilliant.

Even though I'm not working on a Covid ward at the moment, I still have to be very careful when I come home and you still think you might be carrying it everywhere with you.

I get changed out of my nurse uniform, bring it home and throw it straight in the washing machine, and then I jump into the shower.

I even feel guilty when I sit down in the living room just in case I pass it on.

Obviously, I finished my degree early and this is my first proper job but if there is anything I'm worried about I can talk it through with my colleagues and they'll make sure I'm all right.

I'm nervous about the pandemic but I was given such a good induction and I feel like I was prepared for what I was going to face.

Of course, there are hard days when it's really challenging, but I love it more than not.

It's nothing how I thought the start of my career would be, but I definitely think it will make me a better nurse.

It's one of those situations where you do or you don't and it has definitely made me grow up a bit.

I hear people clapping every week and to be a part of something that's making such a difference, it's so heart-warming.

I think it's brilliant that people have noticed how vital the health service is and there's a real sense of pride to be a part of something so important."

Belfast Telegraph