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  • 02 March 2021
  • 7 min read

My (Extremely) Varied NHS Career In Nursing & Care

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    • Mat Martin
    • Richard Gill
    • Megan Clifford
    • Darren Logue
    • Emeaye Uade
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  • 1456
A career full of variety! "I've loved every day going to work and I would do it all again"

From Mortician’s Assistant to State Enrolled Nurse, Joan Sandilands, 71, celebrates a career in Nursing & Care that’s been full of variety, memories and emotional rewards.

Topics Covered In This Article

I’ve Always Wanted To Be A Nurse

A Lucky Break - My First Job In The NHS

State Enrolled Nurse Training

Working As A SEN

Learning And Teaching (And More Learning)

A Change Of Direction In My Career


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I’ve Always Wanted To Be A Nurse

I am 71 years of age now but from being a tiny tot I wanted to be a Nurse and care for people and I still continue to do that now albeit in a voluntary capacity.

I came from a very poor environment and no opportunity to further my education but this didn't deter me.

At the age of 11 years old  I joined the Red Cross and learned all the bones in the body as well as some first aid.

At the age of 13 I went to work voluntary on a children's ward which was every Saturday morning until I left school at the age of 15 (when I desperately wanted to be a cadet Nurse).

A Lucky Break - My First Job In The NHS

But being from a broken family we had no money so I was sent out to work to earn a living against my will, but needs must.

I was lucky that had a neighbour who looked out for me in my younger years and she worked in the Labour Exchange and told me a hospital job was coming up.

I was interviewed and got a job as a mortician’s assistant! I hadn't a clue what this job entailed.

The mortician side of job was to "wash and tidy" the deceased person after they were deposited in the mortuary from the wards (bodies were supposed to be ready for families to view).

I was given a makeup bag to do makeovers on the female bodies! I’d never even applied lipstick to myself.

You can imagine the state of these poor women (no disrespect but Coco The Clown had less makeup on).

I still feel for the families that saw their nearest and dearest like that, and wonder now what they thought.

This ‘lab assistant job’ entailed cleaning specimen bottles and disposing of the contents (ugh!) then autoclaving the bottles ready to be reused in clinics.

I loved this job but it did not quite fulfil my potential.

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State Enrolled Nurse Training

My broken family circumstances wouldn't allow me to do my training as a Nurse so foolishly I got married (at the age of 17).

I applied for SEN (State Enrolled Nurse) training.

This was a two year course with very poor pay of £2.2/6 old money (equivalent to £2.12 and a half pence metric money).

Unfortunately, this wasn't to be.

After being accepted to do my training, which I was overjoyed about, I received a letter two days before I was to begin my training.

It explained that as a newly married woman I would be unable to become a Nurse.

The instruction was was apply again after my second wedding anniversary. Why? As a newly-wed I was at risk of having babies! I was gutted.

I did have a family (after 3 years of marriage) and then applied for training again.

I applied and was accepted to train as a SEN (State Enrolled Nurse).

It was hard work (while also having 3 young children to care for) but it was worth it.

Working As A SEN

I had my Nurse’s uniform and a job.

I started at the hospital in Grindon, Sunderland for infectious diseases.

TB, Chest Infections, Emphysema, STD, Syphylis, Aids. I loved my work, but many patients died.

I cried for everyone of them.

Around this time My Grandparents and Mother all took ill so I gave up work to care for them (I was still just 24 years old).

They all died within 5 months of each other.

It was hard, and grieving was even harder because the kids were still small and my marriage was rocky.

But life goes on.I went to work at a then called "Mentally Handicapped Hospital" in Durham.

I worked nights (13 hour shifts on a rota of 8 nights on, and 4 nights off) to fit around the children who were now at school.

I loved my Nursing job.

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Learning And Teaching (And More Learning)

I learned to sign Makaton to assist some children who could only communicate this way.

This made me want to learn BSL (British Sign Language).

I progressed to Grade 11 BSL.

This skill actually came in useful when I went to teach Health and Social Care studies part time to people wanting to work in Care Homes.

I gained a Certificate of Education to teach this.

This lead to an opportunity to work for Marie Curie Charity and care for the dying.

Once again, I took extra training to ensure my patients and their family experienced a "Good Death”.

I shared my knowledge through more training - specialising in teaching students how to always give the best palliative care in any care environment they worked in.

Once the children were able to manage themselves independently I wanted to get back into full time work.

A Change Of Direction In My Career

SEN training had been phased out by this time so had to consider a change in direction of career.

So I moved into working in Physiotherapy and Occupational Therapy, and also in Speech Therapy.

I worked in the community helping the elderly to keep their independence wherever possible.

I enjoyed this new direction so didn't feel the need to retrain to SRN (State Registered Nursing) and was enjoying different opportunities.

At the age of 60 the NHS offered to pay for me to do a degree in Diabethic Retinal Screening.

I initially thought I had no interest in eyes or diabetes but it was an extra qualification and knowledge.

I completed the degree it and for the next three years ran clinics in every area around me.

It was a fast-rated clinic and I felt like a hamster in a wheel, never ending and constantly fly-working in the dark.

I would be required to diagnose some grave potential loss of sight and watch the distress on people's faces.

I realised that this wasn't the job for me.

I returned back on the Community back to rehabilitation of Stroke Patients, and once more I was happy: I ended my working life working in a job I truly loved.


I now run a little coffee shop for Royal Voluntary Service for patients and staff alike.

It’s as rewarding as most of my jobs in Nursing and care and the NHS (that I have been lucky enough to experience) have been.

I would recommend anyone to absorb any training offered.

It gives you so much satisfaction knowing you can really help people.

Learning is crucial, and never ends.

At the end of my days I would think, "What have I learned today?" Or even, “What new word and meaning have I come across today?” I never forgot the person I was looking after could be my Mum or Dad or my Grandparents.

I treated people the way I would want to be treated.

Thank you for reading my story I hope it helps you to decide whether Nursing is for you.

I can only add that I've loved every day going to work and I would do it all again!

About the author

I'm a retired Rehabilitation Nurse with many strings to my bow, spread over 38 years of working full time with second jobs to get my 3 kids through university. My "strings" included Palliative Nursing and Lecturing in Health and Social Care studies as well as various jobs ranging from bar work to cleaning and taking in ironing and so forth. I wouldn't change any of the rugged pathways I ventured to take or was chosen for me.

    • Mat Martin
    • Richard Gill
    • Megan Clifford
    • Darren Logue
    • Emeaye Uade
  • 2
  • 1456

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    • Darren Logue 3 years ago
      Darren Logue
    • Darren Logue
      3 years ago

      I loved reading your story, Joan. A story of determination, strength and selflessness - you are an inspirational lady. Thank ... read more

    • Emma Keane 3 years ago
      Emma Keane
    • Emma Keane
      3 years ago

      I love this, what an inspiration! I love seeing the career pathways of seasoned nurses! Thank you for sharing and ... read more

      • Thank you for comments Emma ..I loved my life in the NHS along with tears laughter joy and sadness ..but that's what makes it all worthwhile ..hopefully new nurses enjoy their lives as much as I did

        Replied by: Joan Sandilands

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