As a teenager Emily Heron had her career all mapped out – and it was quite unusual. Emily planned on being an aeronautical engineer with the RAF. She had completed an engineering diploma (the only female to do so at that time) and was taking A’ Levels with a view to embarking on officer training in the air force.
She was a young woman on a mission. But then her life took a completely different turn.
Five years ago Emily’s father was diagnosed with chronic kidney disease. He would need to go on dialysis. And his condition and its treatment were compounded by mental health issues. Emily wasn’t living at home at the time, but made the immediate decision to drop out of her studies, return home and care for him.
“At first, the doctors thought he wasn’t going to make it through the week,” the 22-year-old recalls. “So I made the decision there and then, that if I’m going to lose my dad I’d rather spend my time with him than at college.”
Her father sadly died earlier this summer. But the fact that he survived for so many years must largely be due to Emily’s care. As she says, “I found something I didn’t realise I had.”
And it was in those first few days of his diagnosis that she made a dramatic decision about her own future.
“That whole week in the hospital with him, watching everyone doing their jobs – and also seeing how stressed the staff were, seeing what wasn’t going right – I thought to myself, ‘I could do this’. So while I was looking after my dad, I started working in the community, looking after people like him in their homes.
“That was in the private sector. I did everything from personal care, to taking people out for their shopping, to just keeping them company. I did a lot of palliative care and quite enjoyed that. I thought it was such a good thing to do for that person, however long they had left.
“I brag a little bit, but I think I’m quite good at it. I’m in the right job because I care about people and I care about the way they get treated. I treat people the way I would like to be treated if I was in their position.”
She joined the NHS as a healthcare assistant in January 2016, in the renal ward of the Royal Victoria Infirmary in Newcastle.
“The renal ward was a coincidence. At first it was great, because I understood what a lot of the patients were going through, I could empathise with them, because of my dad.
“But the more I learned, the more I knew that it was too much, for me personally. So I started looking for another [placing], and now I now work in trauma theatres, still as a healthcare assistant.”
It was soon after joining the NHS that Emily realised she’d like to become a nurse. But by then it was too late, as the Conservative government had already declared its intention to scrap the NHS bursary.
Nursing is the role I want. The circumstances that I had to go through to realise it have been horrible. But now I would like to be a good nurse.
The move from bursaries to tuition fees and loans has already had a disastrous effect, with a 25% drop in nursing degree applications – deterring both potential new NHS staff and healthcare assistants like Emily from making a natural career progression.
“I can’t afford to just leave work and go to train, because I have no safety net,” she says. “I have nobody to fall back on. So it would be unrealistic and probably the stupidest thing I could do.
“There are thousands of people in my situation, who want to be nurses, midwives, occupational therapists, physios. But with the removal of these bursaries, there’s not going to be anybody able to train.”
With the tuition fee system, after three years’ training a new nurse could be facing £50,000 worth of debt. During their training they will be required to work full-time on a ward, while also studying, and possibly taking part-time jobs in any spare time in order to make ends meet. As Emily observes: “You’re not just working for free, you’re paying to work. Nobody wants to do that.”
A member of UNISON’s Newcastle Hospitals branch, she’s been an active participant in the union’s campaign to save the bursary, the highpoint of which was the lobby of MPs at Westminster in 2016.
“I went down to London and met my MP at the time, who was very supportive of the bursary. I also met other members who were in similar situations to me, and a fully qualified nurse, who has two or three young children at home, who took part in the protest because without a bursary she wouldn’t have been able to train.”
Labour has promised to bring the bursary back when next in power. In the meantime, says Emily, the campaign continues.
“If nobody fights to keep the bursary, and says to the government that what they’re doing is wrong, then nothing will change.
“This is an on-going campaign, not just for the bursary, but for a living bursary, because people who are still in receipt of them are getting the same amounts as 20 years ago. It needs a complete overhaul.
“We’re also campaigning to ensure that any other training schemes, like the nursing degree apprenticeships, are adequate for all involved and that student nurses are not abused while they’re training.
“It’s important to say to people, ‘Well actually, there are other ways you can do this. It might take you a bit longer but we will get you there.’ It’s giving people that little bit of hope.”
One of the most touching moments of UNISON’s health conference this spring was when an emotional Emily, making her maiden speech, was consoled by a fellow delegate as she recalled her and her father’s story. When she refers to herself as a “gobby young member”, she’s selling herself short. She’s a focussed, determined and brave young woman. And in many ways she’s a typical UNISON member, caring for her own family as well as her patients.
Have there been any regrets about her change in career?
“Everything happens for a reason. There’s no point thinking about how it could have gone. For me it’s, ‘Right, what’s happening now? Where am I gonna go?’
“I love my job. You’re constantly learning, which is great. I like doing new things. And even doing some of the stuff that nurses should be doing, or helping them to get things done efficiently, I kinda thrive on that.
“And I know that nursing is the role I want. The circumstances that I had to go through to realise it have been horrible. But now I would like to be a good nurse.”