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Nurse Specialist, Entrepreneur, Broadcaster and Writer - Specialising in Contraception and Sexual Health

Saturday, 23 September 2017

7 Day Health Service
A great ideal
Can the Government make it work?

Helen Knox, RGN, Dip DN, FP 901 and A-08 Adv FP, FAETC

Introduction

Described by the Nursing Times in 2004 as a courageous innovator, Helen qualified as a Registered Nurse at Westminster Hospital, London, before working at St Thomas’ Hospital A&E Dept, where she was 'on duty' on the night of The Brixton Riots. For over 25 years, she has worked in the field of contraception and sexual health; written books, appeared on over 150 TV and Radio shows; writes for the main paper in Barbados... and much more.

Qualifications

RGN - Registered General Nurse
Dip DN - Diploma in District Nursing
ENB FP 901 - Family Planning Course 901
A-08 Adv FP - Advanced Family Planning Course A-08
FAETC - Further and Adult Education Teaching Certificate

Experience

Staff Nurse
Medical Secretary
Staff Nurse A&E
Tailoring and Design Cutting
District Nurse
District Nurse Sister / Team Leader
Locum Family Planning Nurse
Outreach Nurse Specialist in Contraception (UK's first!)
Entreprenuer
Broadcaster
Writer
Sexual Health Trainer

My Career

After qualifying as a RGN at Westminster Hospital in 1978, I worked as a Staff Nurse for six months… then wanted a change! As I was also a qualified Medical Secretary, one of the doctors I knew throughout my training offered me the opportunity to work in Harley Street. Whilst there, I visited Saudi Arabia, to escort a quadriplegic VIP to the UK for medical care. This was a fascinating experience. 

The doctor encouraged me to return to nursing before I lost all interest in doing so, not that I really wanted to but I noticed an advert for a position at St Thomas' Hospital A&E Department and he encouraged me to go for it. Having thoroughly enjoyed my A&E placement as a student, I applied and was lucky enough to be accepted. I thoroughly enjoyed this job, as a Senior Staff Nurse, for almost two years, when I, again… wanted a change. 

I had seen an advert for a Tailoring, Design and Pattern Cutting course in the West End of London and I really fancied doing this. I loved it! So for the next year I mixed my secretarial skills and this, but then, you guessed it… I needed a change and returned to nursing again. This time, though, I fancied being a District Nurse and had rather a romantic notion about what this would entail. The reality was not the same as TV made it appear! I was working in Chelsea and instead of visiting people in plush homes, on many occasions entered homes in great poverty and squalor; which, incidentally, felt a lot more worthwhile than nursing rich people in fancy homes all the time. 

I trained as a District Nurse and became a team leading District Nursing Sister for a few years, working in different areas of Kensington, Chelsea and Westminster but became increasingly interested in Family Planning, dealing with ‘well people’ as well as unwell. 

My initial plan was to do both District Nursing and Family Planning but things did not pan out that way. Although I enjoyed this work there were a number of very difficult to manage patients that made the caseload extremely tough. A colleague and I had hoped to swap sections of our caseload in order to provide some temporary respite from the pressures that we both felt needed relief. Unfortunately we were unable to get management to sanction this and so I walked away from that job for the sake of my health. This was not an easy decision as it also meant that I had to give up a place on the Family Planning course I had managed to get a sponsored place for. I was certain that this was something I wanted to do so I decided to pay for a place myself when it was next held and never looked back. I believe in fate and looking back, I believe this was always the path I was meant to take…

I undertook the ENB 900 course in Family Planning as it was in those days and later, the A-08, the advanced course in Family Planning. I enjoyed both of these courses and still enjoy adding to my knowledge in this area. 

As a result of my experience of having had to walk away from my previous post I was reluctant to commit to another full contract post. I would only take locum clinics on for many months. I worked across three or four West London boroughs and had different managers, each of whom was very different, kind, caring and understanding; and I covered between 7 and 10 sessions per week for them. 

One of them asked me to take contracts for my favourite clinics, mostly in Brent, North West London, which I did. I also worked part-time in Richmond, South West London and gradually accepted contracts again, there, too. It was there that I attended a life-changing nurses meeting. The manager asked if I would ‘fill in’ once every couple of months for her, teaching sex education to juvenile male inmates at a local, young offenders’ institution. This was a fascinating experience and the sessions grew from once in a while to three times a week, at four different men’s prisons and ranged from dealing with juvenile to adult, remand and convicted inmates, across all categories. 

This gave me the experience and confidence for my next job. 

One Monday morning, with my FP Clinic hat on again, I was working at a very busy community clinic in Paddington. A colleague showed me a job advert, saying ‘This has your name on it”. It was for a start-up position in South London, working with a particular consultant, whose name I knew well. I really wanted that job. I applied and... The rest is history. 

In September 1991, I became the UK’s first Outreach Clinical Nurse Specialist in Contraception and this grew quickly to include Sexual Health. I had a completely free hand to develop outreach ideas. With no-one to copy, my aim was to reach the ‘unreachables’ however I could. I had ideas of several things I wanted to do and I just ‘went for it’. With a London A-Z in my hand, I was off. I would frequently be asked “You didn’t go there on your own, surely?” I didn’t know significance of these questions at first, then realised where I’d wandered! 

I thoroughly enjoyed this full-time job for 10 years and developed the UK’s first ‘condom supply points‘. These were the forerunner to today’s C-Card Scheme. I also taught in homeless hostels; drug agencies; probation centres; schools; colleges; civic centres; to sex workers; as well as Schools of Nursing and Universities. I was also undertaking regular clinical sessions.

In 1994 I was a finalist in the Nursing Times/3M National Nursing Awards for Innovation in Nursing and Midwifery for exceptional work in expanding the outreach work related to Family Planning and Sexual Health.

My extensive experience in teaching contraception and sexual health to the public as well as within the profession prompted me to write two books.

I founded the brand ‘Sexplained’ and developed a publishing business in 1995 and in 1999 I incorporated the company Sexplained Ltd.

Over the years, I have appeared on radio and TV, in the UK and overseas, more than 150 times. I have been writing a monthly, 6-page ‘column’ for the leading health magazine in Barbados, West Indies since 2001; developed a training resource for UNICEF Caribbean; been The Virgin Sexpert, online for Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Net.  I also ran two cyber clinics of my own.

I also developed an extremely popular website called WillyWorries.com, which received over 4,000 visits a day until it was hacked and deleted from its server in 2004.

I recently redeveloped Sexplained Training, an accredited training programme covering a wide range of topics related to contraception and sexual healthcare. After six years of work on it, will be publishing the long awaited update to my first book later this year. 

I currently work for the NHS 3 days a week in a clinical capacity and which leaves me time to continue my own work. I am looking forward to working with the UN and a number of developing countries to provide my training courses.

I did not envisage any of this when I travelled to Westminster to start my training back in 1975!

What advice would you offer?

I would advise anyone to enjoy what they are doing and when that changes, to get out rather than let the job or other circumstances wear you down. There are so many avenues to take in nursing and the right job tends to find you, rather than the other way around. Do what you do with passion, care, love and understanding and don't always look for financial reward over job satisfaction.

Even if you are not doing an academic course, keep reading, learning, questioning and enjoying your job with greater appreciation for what you need as well as your patients.

What would you have done differently?

With hindsight I would not have taken my pension out three times, thinking I needed the money then, rather than the accrued years for later on.

I would have made more opportunities to formalise my learning, since the world seems to have gone mad for degrees and pieces of paper over experience and understanding an entire subject area.

Who offered you the best career advice… and did you take it?

I remember being accepted to do Midwifery at two superb London teaching hospitals but despite advice to do it, for all the right reasons, chose not to do it, probably for the wrong reasons. I dreamt of travelling Europe with friends. That did not happen and I often wonder how different my life would have been if I had done it instead of the path I took. I will never know!

What have you liked least about your working life?

The lowest point of my career was when I was working as a District Nursing Sister and I was unable to get permission to change caseload for health reasons. I had been nursing several years and was always good at 'switching off' as I took my uniform off, but at that time I found myself not sleeping well and having nightmares about the relatives of one of my caseload.

On the advice of a relative, who happened to be a Consultant Psychiatrist, I refused to go to the patient on health grounds but my then manager threatened to discipline me if I didn't go. She lost me that day and I will never respect any manager who does not care about their staff properly. There is no point in anyone chanting 'the patient comes first' when they have an unhappy team around them. I firmly believe that 'the staff come first' because without a happy working environment, good care cannot be given.

Even when you come across poor management examples you need to look at what can be learnt from your experience. You can then either develop your own management style to improve on the mistakes you have seen or pass on your experiences to others so that perhaps they might be able to learn from them.

What have you enjoyed the most?

I have enjoyed most things so far, but I think I have most enjoyed teaching the public about my specialist subjects and seeing their faces when things they think they know suddenly become clear. One example is Bacterial Vaginosis (BV), which is the most common form of vaginal infection which is estimated that 1 in 3 UK women will suffer from at some point. Because it’s a condition that not many women are aware of, it is often misdiagnosed as Thrush by both women and health care professionals.

It’s important that people have access to the right information so they can identify and effectively treat BV so I am passionate about working to help raise awareness. I have learned more from other people than they will ever realise and that has helped me to develop my style of writing, teaching, radio and TV work.

Favourite websites

www.ippf.org - Not just because it contains relevant and brilliant information but it also hosts an amazing international directory of hormonal contraception. This is incredibly useful when women from other parts of the world want to maintain their contraception within the UK, or if women here are travelling to other parts of the world and need to know alternative names for what they are using.

www.balanceactiv.com/guidetosymptoms - Because it explains to women the ins and outs of Bacterial Vaginosis, a taboo topic that affects so many women but about which only a few of us understand well.

www.fsrh.org - The website of the Faculty of Sexual and Reproductive Health, which hosts a superb range of up to date information and resources about contraception; a subject that is not generally appreciated well enough or as much as it should be by nurses working in General Practice as well as Gynaecology and Sexual Health.

Further Information

For more information about me, please visit www.sexplained.com

 

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