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Case study: Returning to clinical practice: how COVID-19 has inspired a workforce

Helen Powell – Clinical Trials Assistant at Dorset Research Hub

In this interview, former nurse Helen Powell shares her experience of returning to practice to support the delivery of COVID-19 vaccine research trials at the newly established Dorset Research Hub. 

I’d qualified as a nurse in 1988 and had worked as a cardiothoracic nurse for about eight years before I had my four children. When I returned to work I took on roles that would fit around my children – I spent some time working at an Estate Agency and teaching English as a foreign language. Returning to nursing was something I couldn’t do at that point in my life.

But I never lost the nurse in me; always wanting to help whenever I could. When the pandemic came along, and with my children now older, I thought to myself “Surely I can help?” which is exactly what I did.

“Getting back into a hospital environment again has been great, it felt like coming home.”

I had heard about the Dorset Research Hub being established, so I offered my help to Dr Patrick Moore and to Becks Cutts and they said they would love to have me at the Research Hub.

I returned as a Clinical Trials Assistant through the NHS Professionals bank. I then completed some online training to enable me to work at the Hub which brought me up-to-date with the latest regulations and information for things like Health and Safety and anaphylaxis. The training took about two weeks to complete, but once it was done I could then attend an interview and, subsequently, training days at the Hub.

I applied in September 2020 and by October I was working in the Hub, doing whatever was needed of me. I didn’t have any previous experience of research at all and I was a little nervous about what it would be like, but after my first day at the Hub I came home and told my husband “I’ve had the best day ever!”

“Research is at the core of medicine so we can’t stop where we are.”

My first role was assisting on the Novavax trial. Initially, nurses were in individual rooms and I had to supply everything they needed so they didn’t have to leave, reducing the risk of cross-contamination. I would take blood samples, height, weight and any other things that needed doing to enable the trial to function smoothly including administration tasks.

Getting back into a hospital environment again has been great, it felt like coming home. But I also learnt a lot of new skills; I had to do a course to learn how to take blood samples and as the vaccines became approved I completed my vaccination training and I now do that too. Research is so different to day-to-day nursing, so it has been a great way to use my previous nursing experience but to learn new skills too.

“Bringing together so many different people, with so many different backgrounds has given the Dorset Research Hub a wonderful blend of fields of experience.”

It has also been different to work with healthy participants rather than patients who are sick. They’re there to help us learn about this disease and offer their help. It's been heart-warming to see so many people so keen to volunteer and do their part to fight COVID-19.

The Research Hub is so organised and meticulous, there is pressure but we’re well-supported. All the other Clinical Trials Assistants are amazing, everyone just mucks in and helps wherever they’re needed. Bringing together so many different people, with so many different backgrounds has given the Hub a wonderful blend of fields of experience. We feel very coordinated and working across disciplines gives us all an opportunity to learn from each other.

The work we’ve done at the Hub has really raised the profile of research – we don’t normally see research visible like this and on such a scale. To have a dedicated space in Dorset for research to continue is really important, research is at the core of medicine so we can’t stop where we are.

I would advise anyone thinking about returning to practice or anyone considering it for the first time to just do it. Research is so interesting and it’s a wonderful opportunity to help. For me personally, it’s also given me a purpose – I feel better for doing something for other people. I was nervous to return and wondered if I’d be able to do it but everyone has been so supportive – they’re an amazing bunch of people putting in an extraordinary effort to make research happen.