25th March 2019

Reflections – Evan Howle

Student Learning Disability nurse Evan shares his experience of the Student Leadership Programme residential event in March 2019.

I am writing this on the way back from the student leadership event; organised by the Council of Deans of Health, with support from the Burdett Trust. What can I say, other than wow? The enthusiasm, passion and kindness shown in the room gives me great hope that the future of healthcare is looking very bright, despite all the turmoil and issues it currently faces.

I have written in the past about how when different professionals come together there can be muddied water, despite the common ground that we all share at the core. I didn’t observe a single point when this happened, nobody assumed superiority over another and instead wanted to engage and learn from and about each other. After the first day I tweeted this:

I stand by this statement. The group of people I met showed that we can all work together to make a real positive impact on people’s lives and healthcare. I do not doubt that they are all going to make great strides in their professional progression, and development.

Let me rewind to just before the event. The journey to the event wasn’t without its issues; it felt like there was a running list of things trying to stop me reaching the day. It began with the bus being late, the ticket machine just holding up its imaginary hands and refusing to print, the fact I had no idea how to use the tube so watched multiple pass before I realised I was free to board any. On arrival into Reading I left the train station and for some reason walked in the opposite direction. But I did arrive at the event, and I was also a little early. I collected my badge and sat down to catch my breath.

Now there is something I don’t talk about a great deal, but I do have problems with anxiety, especially in new or social events. It can sometimes be overwhelming, and it takes a lot just to push myself past that initial block. It can occur days before I know something is happening, where my brain goes on overload, and it plays every worst-case scenario it can think off, incessantly. It is forever tempting for me just to go “No, I don’t want to do it now”. It was no different for this event, but I have learnt to accept those thoughts and most importantly talk about them. Verbalising the feelings, with people I trust, has helped a tremendous amount in helping me to overcome them. Despite me pushing through that initial block I can still have those mental processes running alongside everything else, and it can lead to me sweating buckets when anxiety kicks in; I can sweat in sub-zero temperatures, my mouth goes dry, my limbs feel like jelly, and that sinking feeling in my stomach becomes more pronounced. Anyone who has sat beside me has probably heard my body verbalise its stress before, as every part of my digestive tract seems determined to scream out; this can only add to the anxiety.

Despite all of this, I know how far I have come. I would actively avoid any situation that would bring about these feelings which only makes that anxiety more pronounced when it does happen. On arrival at the event I did initially sit down alone, but I quickly decided that I wasn’t there to do that. I was there to network and engage. And I did just that. I got up and asked if it was okay to sit with a group of people. A year ago, I would never have even considered doing that. It wasn’t the only time that I actively pushed myself during the two days, on multiple occasions, I actively looked out for different individuals, and opportunities to sit and talk with different people. From the two days I feel like it was my most significant personal developmental milestone and incredibly important for my professional development in achieving my goal to ensure people with a learning disability receive the same care as everyone. My only regret is not making an opportunity to talk to more at the event and initiate those conversations, but it is still a learning curve.

It is thanks to my professional route that I can make these developments. When working with people with learning disabilities it is very rare for me to display any signs of anxiety and it is because I am so focused on other individuals, all of those thoughts that exist day to day are shifted right to the back of my mind. It has been an essential aspect of the development of my character. I’m aware on first meeting people they would describe me as shy and reserved whereas people I know personally, or through work, would describe me as enthusiastic and confident. They are both aspects of my character, but it is the latter that I would like people to see the most of.

Anyway, as appears to be the norm with these posts I have gone a little off topic, back to the first day. I need to say thank you to both Jennifer and Amy who just happened to be sat at the first table I took the plunge to invade – two great people who have indeed set out to ensure everyone in their university is supported on their course (they bring new meaning to the word busy). The initial activity of the day was an icebreaker. I’m sure students everywhere know these well, and I have myself already taken in part in five. It’s surprising that despite taking in part in so many, I have yet to come across one that followed the same format. I dread the day that the name game makes a reappearance. Say your name, followed by a descriptive, and repeat the names before your own. Impossible I thought, but I admit it was but a great way of remembering names. I’ll never forget the four names that came before me.

The first speaker of the day was the executive director of the Council of Deans of Health, Dr Katerina Kolyva. There was a discussion on what makes a leader, and the various leadership theories and styles that exist. But it was also an important opportunity to accept that we all have an individual leadership style and that we also share so many similarities. It was followed by Nadia Butt discussing the importance of self-care. There is no stronger statement in healthcare that to look after others effectively, we first need to look after ourselves and make that time to ensure we stay healthy. As a student, this has been a topic that has been discussed in different lectures, so it was nice to see its importance being reinforced again.

We next had an opportunity to hear from previous members of the cohort that have used the opportunities given to them from accessing the programme and to share the impact that they have had within healthcare, because of the course. Although they did talk about the positive impact it had on their own lives, it was nice to see that the proudest accomplishments were the ones they had made to peoples lives. Raluca Vagner was able to confidently express how important it is that we accept our leadership style and ensure we look after ourselves; which was an important theme of the day. The talk was also delivered alongside Nick Flanagan who, with the aid of technology, managed to still be a part of the presentation, without physically being there in such an exciting way. I know after talking to a few people, it was an inspiring talk that gave them further encouragement to make that positive impact also. All of this led on well to the group activity before dinner, which allowed us to interact and coordinate how to discuss an aspect of leadership in small groups before presenting to the room.

My group theme was that of disengagement and the dangers of being overly disengaged and equally too engaged with projects. As a group, we were quick to establish that we needed to be self-aware of our strengths and weaknesses to be able to disengage from a project effectively. We were equally understanding of just how difficult that can be. It is also a reason why there need to be those networks of trust built up, people you can step back and talk to and help you realise that no task can be completed alone. Projects require a cohesive group to support and empower each other. It is why empowerment is an essential aspect of any good leadership style. To present to a group, after only 30 minutes of preparation, is a nerve-wracking experience but it was a task that every group took on without a single blip, with heaps of encouragement for everyone within the groups. I felt comfortable within the group to happily volunteer myself to discuss the part of why we needed to disengage. I still raced full speed ahead with how I delivered it, but I felt the encouragement and confidence to stand there and complete the task. It brought an end to the main activities of the day and led to an opportunity for people to show that disengagement and relax.

I am going to skip the hotel and venue review, although I will quickly point out that all aspects deserved an A*.

Still no idea on the order of use for these forks and spoons.

I believe that there was a speaker planned for the dinner event, unfortunately they were ill, but the dinner allowed people to engage with others on a more personal level. There were still those discussions about our roles, but just as much discussion took place about the simple personal issues in life, which was a nice break to remember that we all bring a bit of our personality into everything that we do. I ended the day by putting pen to paper and writing a letter to myself, a task that had been suggested for us to do which we would open in 6 months. It will be interesting to see the change that I have made since putting pen to paper.

It will be interesting to see just what is written here.

Day 2 was an emotional rollercoaster for me. It began with a guest speaker, who was no other than Joanne Bosanquet MBE, the Deputy Chief Nurse of Public Health England. What an inspiring, and passionate woman she is! I must admit that one of her stories discussing advocacy did get me a little choked up, as it is something that I am passionate about. So to hear someone, regardless of her position, standing up and recognising that something wasn’t right was, for me, powerful. She also advocated for people in that very room on hearing their stories and empowered them to take control and have a belief in themselves and everything that they do. There have been many inspiring moments throughout the two days, but none as inspiring as the power she gave everyone to recognise how important they are. She spoke with such delight about her journey and everything that she did, and I am sure people had more questions than she had the time to answer as we led onto the next guest speaker.

The next guest speaker was a Robin Lansman, the past president of the Institute of Osteopathy. I am ashamed to admit that I had never heard of the profession before the first day, until talking to a student osteopath who spoke about the profession. He advocated the vital role they play, and after listening to Robin, it appeared to be a shared desire that they had to make people aware of all they do. It was an interesting talk that encouraged the group to find out what motivates people to change and to work with those discoveries. He also shared his experience of being a mentor/coach to a student and the importance it also had on his development and understanding. A rather interesting arts and craft session followed him.

As part of the talk from Adele Nightingale, a senior lecturer in healthcare leadership, the group were tasked with creating a bounce back billy. The task allowed people to display more of their personality as we all crafted very different billys. But for me, as part of the talk on the importance of reflection and resilience in leadership (which had also been a session at university just two days before), it allowed people to see how we are all unique. We have very different levels of resilience, and also more importantly different ways of managing that resilience and stress. Just to note, bounce back billy didn’t survive the journey home. The glue was not strong enough to hold everything together. Instead, I had feathers stuck to the inside of my bag.

The day then moved onto a talk from Ian Unitt, and Mhairi McLellan a student learning disability nurse, and a midwife. They had both come to talk about the importance of social media in creating those networks with other professionals, and to discover new information on changing healthcare. They both discussed how they have used it to develop as professionals and the opportunities that this has led them to. Interestingly, it was because of Twitter that I had heard about the prospects of the leadership programme, and it led me to apply to be a part of the this. The use of social media is something my lecturers have encouraged from day one as they recognise the important role it plays in our development. Personally, it was so good to see another professional in learning disabilities being part of a more extensive program to promote their role. It is often misunderstood, and not actively promoted as other professions.

I was also pleased to meet two other students, both studying learning disability nursing, but equally as worrying to hear how small their cohort is. Having a small cohort increases the standard of learning you can receive, as there is more flexibility in how personal the delivery is. But, there has been a drastic downturn in the number of people applying to study learning disability nursing with some universities cutting the course entirely which risks a worrying future where more feel like it lacks the same importance as other undergraduate courses. Talking to them both gave me the opportunity to share ideas of ways we could combat this downturn, and hopefully, it is something in the future that we can work together to change.

Overall the event was refreshing and eventful, but I did need those five minutes on the train just allowing the whole experience to sink in. I am excited about the opportunities that will arise from all of the work they do, and equally seeing the fantastic projects that the other students make a reality. Thank you to everyone that took the time to talk and listen to me stumble my way through talking about the importance of learning disability nursing, and social work.