With her children grown up and leaving home, Helen Yeomans knew it was time to pursue a long-held dream she had always had at the back of her mind.
But she feared she’d left it too late in her career for such a major change of direction. Luckily she took a leap of faith and two years later is thriving in the second year of a Nursing degree at the University of Worcester.
The 60-year-old’s career had up until then been in education management, working at a college for more than 20 years.
“We had visiting speakers from the University to talk to my students every year and some of them were really inspirational,” she said. “I remember one in particular; she had done so much in her career and she was a mother and I thought ‘I could do that’. It grew in the back of my mind for many years, but I couldn’t do anything about it because I was a single mum and my children were my first priority and they were reliant on my income.”
Helen said her mother was a nurse and that when she had spent a lot of time in hospital with her brother who had leukaemia, which he died from 13 years ago, she had been mistaken for a nurse.
She said the changing nature of her job in education due to the Covid-19 pandemic was a factor in her decision to switch careers. “I’m a people person and I thought with nursing that they couldn’t put that online!” she said. “It was something I’d thought I’d like to do for such a long time and thought I’d left it too late, but I thought what’s the harm in talking to them, they can only say no?.”
For Helen, there were definitely concerns around her age and whether she would be able to pick up the practical skills. “It did play on my mind. I wondered whether there would be prejudice against me, whether people would think what is she doing here?,” said the mother-of-two. “The University didn’t seem to have any concerns at all and that really helped. I asked if I was too old and the interviewing tutor said ‘no, the workforce has to reflect the demographics of our patients’.
“I wondered whether I would have the energy and strength and tenacity to see it through, and certainly my first week on placement was exhausting because I was doing long days and that wasn’t something I’d ever done before. But, when one of the younger nurses complained of being really tired and she’d just had a few weeks off, I realised it wasn’t my age but the routine I wasn’t used to. Now I have no problem doing long shifts.”
Helen found she certainly wasn’t the only mature student on the course. “I looked around to see if there was anybody like me and there was,” she said. “And having been here for two years I have been surprised by all the mature students there are. There’s lots of student in their 50s. I have found friends across the age groups because we’re all going through the same thing.”
Equally Helen believes there are some advantages to doing nursing later in life.
“That’s where life experience comes in,” she said. “I have been there when patients have died, but, having been through death in my family, I feel better able to cope and support others. I don’t find it as distressing perhaps, I’m more able to empathise. I have done some shifts in palliative care and have found that rewarding.
“The main skill I bring to nursing I think is connecting with patients and the confidence to do that, to talk to strangers because that’s what we do. I have talked to younger students and they have had to learn that skill whereas I feel I already had that.”
Confidence on the learning side also helps. “I find it easy to ask questions in lectures,” she said. “You become less self-conscious and more comfortable in your own skin.” Helen’s career experience of teaching health studies and academic writing skills has also made things easier academically, she said.
Helen thinks Nursing is harder than your average degree. “I have the same academic studies plus months of placement on top,” she said. “You’re doing a full-time job on placement and it’s tiring and perhaps for mature students it’s got different challenges because for me, in the holidays my children come home whereas other students might spend that time studying.
“But it’s just so exciting and interesting. It’s exhilarating, often quite terrifying, incredibly rewarding, just to be able to help a patient. Part of your job is to be kind and that’s so lovely. I think your opinions change as you get older and the things that matter are different and kindness becomes really very important.
“It’s self-rewarding, knowing you’ve helped, but it’s also small things. I was nursing an elderly gentleman, holding his hand in my hand, and it’s a huge reward that somebody trusts you to help them.”
Despite the challenges of her degree, Helen knows she has already come a long way.
“I’m not ready to retire yet, I’m very happy about having taken on a new challenge, but the first day on placement was probably one of the most terrifying things I’ve done,” she added. “I was on an acute medical setting, which is as acute as it gets in nursing. I’m no way near as nervous as I was then and I was delighted to go back onto the ward I’d started on and feel so comfortable compared to how it felt before.”
Her message to people thinking of Nursing later in their career is simple. “Nursing is a vocation, it’s not just a career,” she added. “You have to have a drive to want to do it, but, if you have got that drive, I would say go for it. Don’t have any regrets, don’t hold back on doing what you want to do.
“There will be times when you feel you’re going to give up and think what am I doing?, but everybody goes through this and you have to acknowledge that’s part of the journey.”