My stunned reaction to being honoured with a Damehood

Thank you to all of you at the University for your warm words of congratulation following the recent news that I am to be made a Dame.

Since the moment I learned the news I have been getting used to the idea and reflecting on what it means to me. As you might imagine, I have experienced a whole bundle of emotions.

Anyone involved in the Athena Swan Charter will know of the term ‘imposter syndrome’ – something to which women in academia can be prone.

It’s a feeling that this isn’t real, isn’t me, that the mistake will soon be uncovered… Well, for the last few weeks I have been suffering from a serious bout of imposter syndrome for the first time in my career. Hopefully this will soon pass.

How I found out

I was away from home on a busy week as a member of the REF 2014 panel along with with a few fellow panellists.

We had found a place for supper after a rather long day and whilst waiting for our food I stepped outside of the restaurant to do my usual phone home.

My husband Chris said: “A rather official looking letter has arrived for you from the Cabinet Office, should I open it?”

I agreed, so he opened it and began to read the contents: “‘…strictest of confidence…Dame Commander of the British Empire….if I am agreeable…’”

Well, stunned is the only word I can think of to describe my reaction. I think I said ‘goodness’ and ‘blimey’ a few times.

Returning to the table and continuing like nothing had happened was not easy.

First reflections

It feels genuinely wonderful to be recognised for the things I have passionately pursued during my career, not least because striving for these imperatives, as I see them, had often felt like swimming against the tide.

The first of these is a commitment to challenge the narrow confines of biomedicine and a healthcare system that singularly fails in myriad small ways to put people’s needs and vulnerabilities at the centre of practice. Kate Granger’s brilliantly and bravely told experiences exemplify this perfectly.

These are themes I pursued in lectures and a monograph I wrote for the Nuffield Trust in 2000 when I held the Trust’s Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother Fellowship, they are not new.

My research has at its heart a challenge to biomedicine and has been motivated to create caring practice that aims to change the environment of care around individuals and to be first and foremost patient-centred.

I have, along with many wonderful colleagues and people personally affected by cancer, sought to produce evidence using conventional and unconventional research methods to demonstrate the effectiveness of approaches to care that are structured around the individual.

The second imperative is a commitment to championing the right for nurses in particular to lead healthcare research of the highest quality and value to the healthcare system, heading interdisciplinary teams that include doctors and biomedical scientists.

It therefore follows that I am a staunch advocate of nurses and allied health professionals possessing the level of education that prepares them for such leadership roles.

I have encountered many moments of resistance to this over a long career.  For example, once I was called to the office of a senior academic at a science institute where I was working  to be asked what I was going to do about nurses ‘getting in the way’ of scientists in the library.

Special thanks

This honour, for me, also recognises the long-term support I have received for my research, without which my story would be quite different.

This research journey started with a grant from the Cancer Research Campaign (now CRUK), which enabled me to study for my PhD very early in my career, soon after training to be a cancer nurse at The Royal Marsden Hospital.

Not long after completing my PhD, Macmillan Cancer Support (then Macmillan Cancer Relief), made funding available for research into the practice of Macmillan nurses. This financed a long-term research programme that I led for the next ten years.

This stable funding and a close partnership with Macmillan Cancer Support , as well as other charities, enabled me to undertake work that might not have been supported by conventional biomedical research funding bodies.

Furthermore, it provided a direct route for findings to be included in policy and practice for the benefit of patients. This Honour therefore is also about the farsightedness of Macmillan Cancer Support for which I am very grateful.

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