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Case study: Only UK nurse leading vital COVID-19 study urges others to “go for it!”

Only UK nurse to lead vital COVID-19 study urges others to “go for it!”

A Suffolk NHS worker is the only nurse in the UK to have led an important research study looking at how COVID-19 antibodies are present in children and young adults.

Helen Cockerill, a Research Nurse at West Suffolk Hospital (WSH) in Bury St. Edmunds, applied to lead the What’s the STORY (Serological testing of Representative Youngsters) study at the Trust having witnessed the impact of the coronavirus on the local population. Although NHS consultants usually lead clinical trials at NHS sites, the national team leading the What’s the STORY study at the University of Oxford felt Helen’s experience and dedication was ideal to run the study at WSH, and gave her the ‘green light’ to begin recruiting participants.

Helen has worked as a nurse in Children’s departments since 1998, moving into paediatric research nursing in 2016. When the pandemic hit, she helped the teams working on the SIREN study and other studies at the Trust, but wished she could do more. When she found out about the What’s the STORY study, she felt it could be the perfect opportunity to help further. However, there were no consultants available to take it on, so Helen decided to put herself forward as Principal Investigator (PI).

“It was a case of ‘right place, right time, right study’! I didn’t really feel like I’d played my part up until that point, so I put my all into it. It wasn’t just me who felt that way though; All of the children and their families who took part said they just wanted to do their bit too. We literally had 4 or 5 year olds giving us their arms, saying “we want to help with COVID!”.”

The What’s the STORY study, which is funded by the NIHR, is surveying a cross-section of healthy children and young people up to the age of 24, by testing for antibodies and monitoring their exposure to COVID-19. This was done by carrying out blood tests of the participants and interviewing their families.

Helen and the team at WSH managed to exceed their recruitment target of 100, consenting 120 participants on the trial, despite starting in January 2021 – much later than other teams. Helen not only puts their success down to the enthusiasm of participants, but also the early decisions made to make sure patient safety was prioritised.

“We wanted to make it as easy as possible for people to take part, so we developed a safe process to enable us to visit the participants in their homes, if that’s what they felt more comfortable with. We also opened the Children’s Outpatients’ department at the Trust on a Saturday, so participants could come in when it was empty.

“The clinic has a separate entrance away from the main hospital so families could enter separately and be seen as safely as possible. We also enlisted the help of two of the department’s Sisters, meaning the children were as comfortable as possible, and the Sisters were able to get their first experience of working in research!”

Helen feels she has gained a significant amount from leading the study, and hopes others will follow her lead:

“Being a PI has given me the confidence to know I can hold my own as a PI and network in those areas. As long as it’s a study that you feel passionately about, and have a good understand of, there’s no reason why you can’t go for it.

“Physician PIs are essential, particularly for drug trials etc. but there is a route for nurse PIs too, and by nurses getting involved, teams can run studies that they might not have thought of running before too.”

Professor Matthew Snape, Associate at the Oxford Vaccine Group and Clinical Investigator for the What’s the STORY study, championed Helen’s efforts, saying:

“It was a pleasure working with Helen Cockerill, who did an excellent job as the Principal Investigator for ‘What’s the STORY’ in Suffolk. Helen showed the benefits of having an Investigator who is directly engaged with delivering a research project.

“Throughout the study period she showed great initiative and was highly responsive to the changing demands of the study. As Helen has shown, clinical research can only benefit by having an increasing number of nurses taking on leadership roles.”

Results from the What’s the STORY study are expected later this year. For more information, visit the What’s the STORY website.