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A day in the life of a research nurse at Newcastle Hospitals


Helen Chambers is a nurse who looks after patients taking part in cancer research trials at Newcastle upon Tyne Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust. In this article, Helen gives us an insight into the work she does and tells us what she finds most rewarding about her role.

I have been a nurse since 1994 having started my training in the old Preston Hospital – which has now been knocked to the ground! On qualifying I worked as a nurse on plastic surgery and then vascular surgery at the RVI before I moved back to North Tyneside Hospital for a higher grade nursing post on a very busy surgical ward. During this time I got married and had three children, so I dropped my hours to spend time with my family. I loved my job on the busy ward and thoroughly enjoyed surgery, but when I got to 40 I thought a change (and a slower pace) might be a good idea after 15 years on a busy ward. I also managed to complete my degree while bringing up my kids. With my husband working away, I felt this was quite an achievement.

I decided to apply for a job at Newcastle Hospitals as I really wanted to work for a prestigious teaching hospital. As I was finishing my degree, I applied for a part time nursing post at the Sir Bobby Robson Cancer Trials Unit (SBRU) and was delighted to get the job. Even though I didn't really know what a research post involved, I knew it sounded very interesting and that SBRU is a world class unit. I achieved my band six promotion after around 18 months and continued in this role for ten years.

My role involves looking after cancer patients who have decided to take part in an experimental cancer drugs trial when they have exhausted all other treatment options. Sadly, this is the last option for most of our patients and they are often poorly. I love spending quality time supporting the patients and their families and providing that network of services and care during some of their saddest days.

I also love the research aspect, which is fascinating. This is truly the most interesting job I have had. I have had many opportunities to learn about the biology of the cell, genetic mutations and profiling, and the intricate development of targeted therapies with the aim of fighting cancer and prolonging life. I am always astounded by how much scientists know about a microscopic cell. I am now working full time and am the Research Sister of the unit. I am delighted to lead a team of fantastic research nurses.

Each morning, the nursing team will meet over a coffee and I will allocate nurses to patients who are attending that day. On a Monday we meet with the doctors/consultants to discuss the plan for the week. I will sometimes look after patients if the unit is busy, or sometimes head to my office to manage the patient waiting list. We have many patients who have been referred for a trial who are waiting until a trial slot becomes available. Each Thursday I attend a meeting with the consultants and some of the trial coordinating staff to go through the patient list and try to match a patient to a trial that has a slot available. Once a plan is in place, I approach the patient and offer them an appointment to discuss the trial. This is a lovely part of the job and can outweigh some of the sadness. Hope is a very powerful thing and, although an experimental treatment may have a low chance of benefiting the patient, the patients feel empowered to try to prolong their life. I also attend many meetings to discuss new trials or trial updates, and I am involved in HR meetings, staff shift patterns and providing much needed support for staff working in a highly emotional area.

During the pandemic it has been business as usual on the trials unit, as the team made the decision to try and continue providing cancer drug trials to patients who have a limited life expectancy. Some patients were worried and declined an appointment at SBRU, but most people were keen to try and treat their cancer. We avoided any high risk trials that were likely to cause immunosuppression and put the patients at risk. Our patients’ feedback suggested they felt safe in a very clean clinical area and we have been very strict with our PPE.

There is so much I find rewarding about my job. It is a privilege to make a difference to patients and their families when they are at their most vulnerable and don’t know where to turn. I find it amazing to give hope to people and of course it is fascinating to be developing the next generation of cancer drugs after exploring individual genetics.