Matron of honour
Caring for people in forgotten or alienated sections of society presents significant challenges. For my subject, it has been the challenge of a lifetime. Join me as I share coffee and a biscuit with Valerie Walker, whose very job title suggests a fervent desire to keep calm and carry on.
Hi Valerie. What is a Matron?
I’m nothing like the characters portrayed by Hattie Jacques in the Carry On films. I am responsible for the running and delivery of quality nursing care at a sixty-bed care home for ex-servicemen and women. The role is somewhat different to the caricature of a matron in an NHS hospital, walking round with a clipboard.
When did you realise you wanted a career in healthcare?
When I was young, I enjoyed looking after my Nana, who had multiple sclerosis. I realised I wanted to be a nurse and applied to Guy’s Hospital, in the days when you had to interviewed with a parent. I got accepted, and moved to London on my own. It was a big thing in those days – no one visited for three years.
What happened next?
In 1986, after completing my training, which included several years of experience on the wards, I went to work at the ‘Home for Incurables’, in Putney.
Wow, that’s a sensitive name. My Nana was living there, and I visited her while I was a student nurse. I thought it had enormous potential, but a few weeks after starting work I thought, “what have I done?”. As time went on, however, it became clear that I could make a difference.
What was it like working at such a specialised institution?
When I first started, patients accepted that they had an incurable disease, but hoped it could be improved. The residents typically had MS, Parkinson’s or motor neurone disease – all the progressive neurological conditions I was passionate about. In wider society, I thought they were treated like third class citizens. In my Nana’s case, we had to catheterise her and look after all her physical needs, but it didn’t affect her mentally.
What challenges stood out?
I progressed into a management of incontinence role – 350 people lived there, 300 of whom were incontinent; it wasn’t the sexy end of nursing. I took the National Board course at the Institute of Urology, under the tutorage of Julian Shah (a notable incontinence expert), and he convinced me there was a lot more we could do at the home. The first thing I did was get rid of the carpets. Incontinence and carpets are a recipe for disaster.
The name of the place seems barely believable.
It took us until the 1990s to change it, first to ‘The Royal Hospital and Home, Putney’, which was terrible, because people didn’t know what it was for, and finally, ‘The Royal Hospital for Neuro-disability’. By that time, we’d opened an Acquired Brain Injury unit, Huntingdon’s unit and a day hospital. From being a sleepy institution, we had moved into modern health service delivery. It ended up being a place with a great atmosphere.
What was your next move?
I joined The Queen Alexandra Hospital in 2001, after my husband’s job took him to Worthing. I had called about a matron job, and the new CEO John Paxman, cousin of Jeremy, said, “Well, are you interested or not?”
How very ‘Paxman-esque’.
Yes. When I visited the place I thought, “I could do so much here”.
What did the job involve?
Setting up a social programme for the residents. I wanted it to be far more progressive, so I started transferring everything I had learnt at Putney. As a nurse, I’ve always passionately believed that patients should be treated as if they were your own mother or father, and that is what I teach my nurses now.
What is the set up at The Queen Alexandra?
There is an age range of between 31 and 98, and some residents are entirely dependent on us; 41 have suffered strokes and some are paid for by the NHS to be rehabilitated. We also take ex-service women and relations of ex-service personnel. If you have empty beds, you must show public benefit.
What are the specific needs of ex-servicepeople?
I have nursed people who couldn’t talk about being prisoners of war and had become very insular. One resident didn’t open up until the last days of his life and I was the only person he would talk to. He’d known me for 10 years and had psychological problems about what he did in the forces – presumably killing people. At the end, I sat with him and held his hand. It wasn’t because I was a matron or a woman; we just connected.
What have been your proudest achievements there?
I have developed a multi-disciplinary approach to support nursing and healthcare, which includes a physio department, an occupational therapy department, speech therapists and dietitians. I’ve got all the integrated services, so you don’t have to wait four months to be treated, like in most nursing homes.
What is your relationship with pharma?
It has a vital place within the conditions I work. It’s just a shame we can’t always get the drugs we want, because it is controlled by price. I have to fight my corner and say, “We’ve done the research and used the drug, but we need a different treatment, and this is why”. I’ve been working with the same GPs for a while now, and if they hear that, ‘Matron wants to speak with them’, it’s because I have a question about a drug. Gone are the days when, on the NHS, you could get anything you wanted signed off.
What record would you choose for the soundtrack of your life?
‘I’m in the Mood for Dancing’, by The Nolan Sisters.
Naturally. It’s your last supper, what are you having?
Pink tuna, covered in sesame seeds, with a lovely salad.
Superb choice! Goodbye Valerie.