Shirley Dowden for Black History Month: a 46-year career in nursing

Black History Month is a national campaign which celebrates black contributions to British society and aims to foster an understanding of black history. We are formally celebrating Black History Month for the first time in our organisation this year to recognise the huge contribution of black staff to the NHS and to our hospitals in particular. As part of the celebrations we will be sharing blogs and features on the Trust website and across our social media channels.

Senior sister Shirley Dowden is the longest serving BAME staff member at the Trust with a career at St Mary’s Hospital spanning 46 years. As part of Black History Month, Shirley talks about the changes she’s seen, her time caring for AIDS patients in the 80s, and the Trust’s new nursing and midwifery BAME network.

In November 1972 I joined what was previously known as the St Mary’s School of Nursing.  It was a natural decision for me to enter nursing as it was a family profession and I was following in the footsteps of several female relatives. Our nursing classes happened on the second floor of Mint Wing and I lived on-site in Salton House, which is now offices. I paid £42 a month in rent and lived under the watchful eye of a strict matron who made sure visitors, especially male ones, did not overstay their welcome.

Studying at St Mary’s

I am from a Caribbean background and at the time I was one of a minority of black nurses studying at St Mary’s, but this changed in 1975 when there was an influx of nurses from the Caribbean. After completing my training, I began my career as a State Enrolled Nurse (SEN) – a practical nursing role and the equivalent of what we now call a Band 4 nurse. In the early 90s, SEN roles were being phased out so I completed a conversion course to become a registered general nurse (RGN), which is equivalent to a current band 5 position. It gave me promotional opportunities and the prospect of moving into management. Prior to this, few black nurses were encouraged to convert to RGN level.

Working with AIDS patients

I’ve worked in various departments during my time at the Trust, from orthopaedics to A&E and admissions. In the 80s, I remember seeing lots of patients attending appointments with sores all over their bodies, known as lesions. At the time, unless you worked directly with these patients, nobody explained to you what the lesions were. When I discovered that these were patients with AIDS it was at a time when very little was known about the disease. It spurred me on to complete a training course in caring for patients suffering from AIDS, which helped me to confront my own fears and develop the skills to provide the best care to this group of patients.

Moving to imaging

I have been working in the imaging department since 1989 and over the years my experiences have been more positive than negative.  Any racism I’ve encountered has come from patients rather than colleagues.  I have never allowed negative language or labels to offend me so I have ignored what people have sometimes said to me. I’m often asked why I have stayed at St Mary’s for such a long time and I always say it’s like a family unit where staff of all different levels and backgrounds eat together at mealtimes. It is a pleasant atmosphere to work in with good nursing sisters who treat everybody well, irrespective of race.

BAME network

I know the Trust has recently set up a BAME nursing and midwifery network and I’m keen to go along to future meetings.  In our current healthcare climate there are more black nurse managers than in the past, but still very few senior and executive black nurses so there is definitely room for improvement.  I’m hopeful the new network will bring about positive change and see better integration and progression for BAME nurses within the Trust.

If you are a Trust nurse or midwife and would like to join the BAME network, contact: Marie Batey:

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