Doing the rounds

4th November 2011 at 00:00
Pupils with aspirations for careers in nursing experienced the sights, sounds and smells of life on the wards at a training centre that replicates a hospital environment

Their instincts are telling them this is the job for them, and this week these teenagers are putting that gut feeling to the test.

They seem to have an overwhelming impulse to help and care for others and have emotional stories about how their sense of vocation has been awakened.

Some have been inspired by life-saving treatment in hospital or by the care given to close family. One or two felt powerless watching a relative die and are determined to equip themselves with skills to help others.

Then there are those who have heard stories from mothers or grannies and suddenly recognise this is the path that they too will take. But have they really got what it takes to be nurses?

For the past week, pupils like 16-year-old Iona Tulloch from Perth High have been taking part in an autumn nursing school organised by Robert Gordon University and NHS Grampian in Aberdeen.

They have been on the wards watching nurses at work and talking with patients, discovering whether they can handle what the professionals describe as the sights, sounds and smells of hospital wards.

"I am interested in adult nursing, but after visiting the mental health hospital I would quite like to do that as well. I really enjoyed it," says Iona, a sixth-year pupil who hopes to follow her mum and grandmother into nursing.

This morning is the final day of their course and they're working in a six-bedded ward at the clinical skills centre at Robert Gordon University's faculty of health and social care in Aberdeen.

It's a state-of-the-art training centre which replicates a hospital environment for students. Life-sized mannequin patients stare glassily ahead in some of the ward areas - children in football shirts and a pregnant woman in the midwifery suite who can give birth with help from a motorised unit.

But the pupils won't be needing them today. They're "admitting" a cast of real-life volunteers who take their roles very seriously - pretending to be patients to help students develop a sympathetic bedside manner.

Most are retired and enjoy coming in here. It's a pleasant enough way to pass a morning. You might not get an Oscar for your performance, but you always get tea and biscuits for your trouble.

"Can I ask about your sleep? How many hours roughly do you sleep?" 17- year-old Findlay Milton gently asks the man lying on the bed and charts his responses.

Findlay's a sixth-year pupil from Meldrum Academy and one of a dozen prospective students on the programme to find out if nursing is really for him.

Over the past week he's had a unique insight behind the scenes at Aberdeen Royal Infirmary, Royal Aberdeen Children's Hospital, Royal Cornhill and Woodend Hospitals.

As well as learning core nursing skills taking these volunteers' pulse rates and monitoring blood pressure, pupils like Findlay and Iona have scrubbed up for visits to theatre - although they'll have to wait for their training to witness a real operation.

Findlay remembers how worried he felt when he fractured his skull as a 12- year-old and was rushed to hospital: "They had the sirens going and everything, so I experienced all that. And I can remember the people in the ambulance telling me it was all going to be OK. I remember thinking they were being really supportive and it made me feel a lot more comfortable with the situation," says the Aberdeenshire pupil.

"So I've been in hospital before. I've experienced how nurses can help and I want to put something back into hospitals. I've been quite good at helping people and I like the satisfaction you get from that, so I think nursing is the perfect course for me."

Findlay's the only boy alongside 11 girls this week - a gender imbalance the head of the Robert Gordon University school of nursing and midwifery, Professor Brian Webster, is keen to address.

Professor Webster was the same age as Findlay when he began his early career in mental health nursing. "I think nationally we are seeing a decline of males into nursing and we really want to work with schools to try and address that balance and get more men into it - by making it an attractive option and showing them they could have really positive careers in nursing," he says.

Hospitals need caring young people, but 21st-century nurses need strong skills in science and numeracy and must communicate effectively with patients.

"It's really important to get school leavers to understand the complexities of nursing. I think there is an old-fashioned image that still lingers around nurses being doctors' handmaidens, and what we are trying to do is actually show that nursing is a science, as well as an art," says Professor Webster.

This course highlights these skills with challenges in communication and numeracy, when they do exercises to calculate drug doses, work out patients' fluid balance and calculate their Body Mass Index. Pupils also fill out a workbook noting how they feel during hospital visits, which encourages them to reflect on their experiences.

They will need two Highers and five Standard grades to join the three-year bachelor of nursing degree course at Robert Gordon University. But one or two students have already embarked on the alternative requirement of a one-year access to nursing course at partner FE colleges.

Nursing nowadays is nothing like Casualty, according to Margo Learmonth, lecturer at the school of nursing and midwifery, who runs this course along with university colleagues and NHS Grampian.

"I would tell them it's a caring, challenging and rewarding career - that no two days would ever be the same, that people don't always get better, but that we can help them to lead a good life," says Mrs Learmonth, who works as a health visitor half-a-day every week.

Working alongside her is Allan Leslie, a professional development facilitator with NHS Grampian who has worked as a psychiatric nurse. They organise a week's summer nursing school in July and one-off taster days for pupils - this is the first autumn nursing school, introduced to cope with growing demand for summer school places.

"This week they were in some of the care of the elderly wards, some of the oncology wards and some surgical wards. They spent a day in mental health and met a service user who was very, very good and gave them an understanding of what it was like to have schizophrenia," says Mr Leslie.

They've also spent a day in the children's hospital: "They can see that it's not only about dealing with children, but the parents as well," he says.

For a range of reasons, some pupils may decide that nursing is not for them. "It's about interaction. It's being able to touch people. That might seem strange, but we have had one or two pupils who have found it difficult to touch other human beings," says Mr Leslie.

The young people began this week feeding each other yoghurt: "It's to give them empathy, to see what it's like to be fed by someone else if you can't feed yourself. The speed at which the spoon goes in, allowing the person to swallow or chew, is it what they like or dislike?" he says.

Pupils also washed each other's faces - allowing them to experience giving and receiving personal care. They're also encouraged to get more experience in caring settings in their communities, so they know what it's like to help people wash or go to the toilet.

Today's the last day of their week and the pupils are fired up and enlightened by their experiences. Some came wanting to nurse children and are now more inclined towards mental health nursing. All appear more focused and determined to work harder to ensure they make the grade.

Lauren Gibb, 17, from sixth year at Peterhead Academy, will apply to come here or will do the access to nursing course at college. "I really, really want to be a nurse now," she smiles.

She was considering adult nursing, but after this week feels drawn to mental health nursing. "I really wanted to help them when they were telling me their story. I just wanted to go over and give them a hug. I'm going to be quite an emotional nurse, but I've been told that can really help at times because it means you will do everything in your power to help."

It's evident that both the NHS staff and their university colleagues enjoy this week with young pupils. "I love it," says Fiona Baguley, a lecturer at the school of nursing and midwifery.

"The students who are coming in are so receptive, on the whole they are really, really keen and they are just completely open. And when you see the students interacting with the volunteer patients as well, that's just lovely seeing that contact that some of them develop and the communicating skills that are coming out."

She is in no doubt that nursing offers fulfilling opportunities: "Of course it is rewarding. You are in a privileged position. You can gain insight into people that you don't in any other profession and you can make a difference."


They've thought of everything to make the wards in the clinical skills centre convincing imitations, even down to the Get Well cards sitting at each bedside. The volunteers are given brief outlines of their character's medical history and some approach their roles with the kind of commitment you'd expect to find at the Royal Shakespeare Company.

"We have a gentleman who comes in with a suitcase of stuff and he dresses the part to go with his scenario," says Margo Learmonth, a lecturer in the university's school of nursing and midwifery. "He has things like trousers stained with Coca-Cola, matted wigs and dirty tops," she says.

"He lost his wife to cancer. She had nursing care at home and he feels the care was so exceptional that this is the way he can give something back."

Gratitude is a common theme among volunteers, such as retired teacher Jennifer Dalmaine. She does this to help the young people and to enjoy their company. "It's also paying back something to the hospital because my late husband was very well looked after when he was in hospital," she says.

The university is now recruiting for next year's summer nursing school for over-16s and one-day taster days for pupils from S3 and above. Further information is available from

Photo credit: Angus Blackburn

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