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With honours: Open University hails trainee nurses who joined pandemic frontline

© Neil HannaJulie Plenderleith, now a staff nurse at Crosshouse Hospital in Kilmarnock, cared for Covid patients as a student nurse
Julie Plenderleith, now a staff nurse at Crosshouse Hospital in Kilmarnock, cared for Covid patients as a student nurse

They were angels in ­waiting, student nurses who, with little thought for their own safety, opted to stand shoulder-to-­shoulder with Scotland’s frontline NHS staff as Covid hit.

Tomorrow they will step on to the stage at Glasgow Royal Concert Hall to collect their degrees in the Open University’s first in-person ceremony since 2019, as 24 BSc graduates who should have graduated in 2020 and 2021 will finally be able to celebrate their achievements.

Students like Kilmarnock mum-of-three Julie Plenderleith, 51, who was grieving the loss of her dad to a brain tumour when she stepped up to care for Covid patients and is the latest dedicated nurse to be nominated for The Sunday Post’s People’s Choice award in the Royal College of Nursing Scotland’s Awards.

She told The Sunday Post: “I did this for my dad, for my colleagues, and most of all for the patients who needed us. I only wish my dad could be there to see me graduate and also see me nominated for this award. He would have been so proud. I will be wearing the dress I wore to his funeral to my graduation. It’s my way of having him with me.”

Susan Stewart, director of the Open University in Scotland, said: “The achievements of our pandemic nursing graduates are quite remarkable. Not only have they studied while being on the frontline during the Covid-19 pandemic, but they’ve overcome their own personal struggles on their journeys to becoming qualified nurses. They have shown extraordinary determination in achieving their goals.”

The Sunday Post People’s Choice Awards: ‘Growing up, I learned never to give up’

Plenderleith, who already holds an Honours degree in psychology and a Masters in mental health from Glasgow Caledonian University, decided to fulfil her childhood ambition of becoming a nurse when she saw first-hand the care her father Jim Plenderleith, 77, received at the University Hospital Crosshouse – where she is now a staff nurse – when he became critically ill.

The flexibility of the OU meant the mum to Mark, 32, Hope, 23, and Brooke, 11, could continue to work full-time as a nursing assistant in its stroke unit while studying with online tutorials completed at home. Tragically, her dad died halfway through the course. She almost gave up but was encouraged to continue by her line manager.

Plenderleith said: “The Open University offered me the chance to opt in as a Band 4 student staff nurse to help the NHS cope with the added pressures of nursing Covid patients. Instantly I accepted.

“There was nothing to think about. I was going to be that nurse. I wanted to acquire all those skills and experience and to care for those who affected not only by stroke, but also Covid.

“But I was fearful. I was worried I would take the virus home to my family and that myself or a family member might lose their life to the disease. I was worried about my widowed 81-year-old mother Sadie. She is my childminder. We couldn’t mix households. We couldn’t risk her safety and she spent lockdown alone.”

She added: “A new type of nursing emerged where I wore full PPE or face masks, visors, long-sleeve aprons and gloves to care for Covid-positive patients and isolating patients.

“You are supporting patients through their last breaths, holding their hands and talking to them, the way you might to your own loved ones. And that is tragic.

“It took me back to the loss of my dad but you want to provide the care to that patient in the same way you would want your own family to be treated.”

She experienced the ­disease herself in December 2020, just before Christmas. “The vaccine had just come out and I was meant to get it when I became ill,” she said.

“I felt as if I had been hit by a truck. I couldn’t get out of bed. I was ill for three weeks in total and in bed for five days. I did fear at one point that I might not make it.”

Plenderleith now plans to study for a Masters degree in advanced clinical practice with the OU, and aspires to become a tutor for its adult nursing Honours degree programme.

The Sunday Post’s People’s Choice Award is a wonderful opportunity for everyone to thank a nurse, midwife or nursing support worker who has gone above and beyond the call of duty to improve a patient’s life and care.

Julie Lamberth, RCN Scotland board chair, said: “All the nominations we receive will demonstrate how nursing staff go the extra mile to provide high-quality nursing care, day in day out, for the people of Scotland.”

Above and beyond

The 24 nurses graduating at the Open University’s first in-person ceremony since 2019 include:

Jenny Welsh, Shetland

Jenny Welsh

Mum-of-three Jenny Welsh had just moved to the Shetland Isles and started a family when she decided her future was in nursing.

It was while working as a healthcare assistant in her local maternity ward she learned about the nursing degree offered by the OU. With support from NHS Shetland, she studied and stayed in her job between work placements. After gaining a first class Honours degree in adult nursing, Jenny has now successfully become an accident and emergency staff nurse and loves her new job.

Elvira Viray, Ballachulish, Lochaber

Elvira Viray (Pic: Neil Hanna)

Tomorrow will be a proud day for mum-of-four Elvira Viray, 54, who works at Abbeyfield Care Home in Ballachulish. She had always wanted to become a nurse but put her dream on hold to provide for her family and with eldest son Justin, 30, battling thyroid cancer. It finally became possible thanks to the OU and the Scottish Government-funded nursing degree programme. Now a staff nurse and the holder of a BSc (Hons) in adult nursing, she moved from the Philippines to start a new life in Scotland, initially taking a job as a kitchen porter at a care home.

Leanne MacPherson, Cumnock , Ayrshire

Leanne MacPherson, 42, who graduates with a BSc (Hons) in mental health, comes from a long line of nurses but when she left school at 16 she went to work in a jeans factory. She finally took the first steps to her true vocation when she started working for the NHS as a nursing assistant. With three children to support, Leeanne – based at East Ayrshire Community Hospital – said she wouldn’t have been able to take up a degree if it wasn’t for the flexibility to remain in employment while studying, with her degree costs covered by the Scottish Government-funded OU Future Nurse Programme.

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