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Nurse Jenny became a household name overnight when UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson thanked her publicly for helping him to recover from Covid-19. Known as 'Nurse Jenny from New Zealand', Jenny has worked as an NHS nurse for 10 years. We spoke to Jenny about what it was like being thanked by the UK Prime Minister, how she's coping, and how she's staying connected to her New Zealand roots. 

Nurse Jenny with her parents
Nurse Jenny with her parents.

What is your background and how did you end up working at St Thomas’ Hospital?
I grew up in small town New Zealand. I went to secondary school in Invercargill but I actually grew up in the country near a small town called Edendale (‘NZ’s home of cheese’), poor Edendale has been robbed of recognition. Growing up I desperately wanted to do anything that my three older brothers were doing- and that was be a student at Otago and travel, so my mum suggested nursing and that’s what I did.

When I finished my nursing degree the first place I could travel to and work, without having previous nursing experience, was Australia. Me and my friends decided to make it the first port of call so we went to Melbourne and worked at the Royal Melbourne Hospital. Initially I didn’t know what area I wanted to work in and was happy to do anything as long as I could travel. But after a few years of working on different wards I became increasingly jealous of my friends working in intensive care and decided to give it a go. I loved it. I loved it the minute I set foot in it, I loved the acuity of the patients, the machines/technology, the autonomy nurses had, how busy it was, and the satisfaction of looking after sick patients. I decided to stay in Melbourne for a bit longer and specialise in intensive care.

After completing my studies it was time to move to the London. I started working immediately at Guy’s and St Thomas’ Hospital (GSTT), but as an agency/contract nurse initially. My focus for the first few years was travel so I spent a lot of my time travelling and stayed as an agency nurse for quite a few years as it gave me the flexibility to have as much time off as I wanted. The St Thomas’ intensive care team treated me like a normal senior staff member, and I eventually became a permanent team member. Shortly after I made that transition I was promoted to deputy sister/shift leader, and then became a Sister in 2017.

What was it like being singled out by the British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and seemingly becoming a household name overnight?
It was quite unexpected! I had no warning. My life changed dramatically in the space of a few minutes. My phone went beserk and within a couple of hours there were reporters ringing my doorbell. I had to go to night-shift that night and be in-charge of a busy ICU during a pandemic and I initially found it all too much and overwhelming. But my family told me to turn my phone off and forget about it, and that’s what I did. In the morning when I turned my phone on I was being told I was a snob for not responding to Jacinda Ardern! I decided to try and enjoy it all, I am nurse Jenny from Invercargill, I’ve never experienced anything like this, and likely to never again, so have enjoyed the ride since then.

What has been the most rewarding part about working through this crisis? What has been the most challenging?
The most rewarding part of this crisis has been being part of the GSTT and NHS response. Everyone, on every level has stepped up, from people working in office jobs, to ward/outpatient nurses being redeployed to ICU to help (some with no hospital experience!), to senior consultants in another field coming to ICU to help roll patients, its phenomenal. Within our ICU team – as a Sister I am so proud of my team taking on the challenge of looking after 1,2,3 sick ICU patients, and the true teamwork mentality- support, encouragement and togetherness. I am in awe.

The most challenging is without a doubt the devastating affect Covid is having on large amounts of people. In intensive care we are well versed in death and take a lot of pride in making it dignified and peaceful, it is a small part of what we do, but nothing like on the scale we are seeing now. And we have very little/no visitors allowed on the unit due to the risk to them, so patients are dying without their families at their bedside. It is not right, and very hard to watch as families say good bye via an iPad. We hold the patients hand as they take their last breath but it should be their loved ones.

What do you make of New Zealand's response to Covid-19?
I think Jacinda has done a fantastic job. I know she has her critics, but if covid had taken hold in NZ like it has in Europe it would have been devastating. She has saved thousands of lives.

Despite having the support of the New Zealand and global community, is it tough being away from home during a time like this?
I find it very hard to be so far away from home during this time. My parents are around the age of 70, and although extremely fit and well, they live in Nelson – highly populated by over 70s. So I find this really worrying. I know that I couldn’t come home in a hurry, couldn’t be with my family within a couple of days. Another reason I am so grateful to the PM for early lockdown.

What do you do to look after your own health and wellness during such a stressful time?
My boyfriend gives amazing footrubs! A footrub makes everything else disappear. He has been a wonderful support through all of this.

I have worked in ICU for a long time, you very quickly learn to leave ICU at the door when you go home, otherwise noises, beeps and alarms follow you round. I also work with some of my best friends – so we understand exactly what each other is going through and debrief almost on a daily basis. GSTT have also a huge focus on wellbeing during this crisis. Its very important to the trust that we are ok and we have teams of people ensuring we feel supported.

How do you stay connected with the Kiwi community so far away from home?
Social media! Houseparty app is going off with kiwis having virtual parties and quiz sessions! In London and NZ.

If you could send a message back home, what would it be?
Thank you so so much for ALL the messages I have received. I have so many messages on Facebook I cannot respond to all of them and it has truly warmed my heart after tough shifts at work. Going forward if I ever feel down I will just read these messages and smile, they are so so nice. Thank you all so much. I am working hard, but I am well and safe :) 

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Part 12