A career of crises: chief nurse looks back on 38 years

Michelle Rhodes is set to retire at the end of March from the post of chief nurse at the hospital where she initially began her nurse training 38 years ago.

Ms Rhodes returned to Nottingham University Hospitals NHS Trust as its executive nurse in June 2021, exactly 35 years after she first went there as a nurse trainee.

“I’m going to be gutted walking out of here. I don’t know how I’m going to do it”

Michelle Rhodes

She has come full circle, ending up at the hospital in her home town of Nottingham where her career started, but she has faced serious challenges and is proud of what she has achieved along the way.

“When I think about it, I get quite emotional because it’s a real journey that I’ve been on,” Ms Rhodes told Nursing Times.

In her career Ms Rhodes has worked at a number of trusts going through major crises.

“I’ve been to all these tough places. I’ve done a lot of tough jobs,” she noted.

After taking on commissioning roles and coming to the end of a year on secondment as chief operating officer (COO) at Nottingham University Hospitals, in 2010 Ms Rhodes took an interim COO job at Mid Staffordshire NHS Foundation Trust, in the midst of the Mid Staffs scandal.

“I’d not experienced anything like it,” she recalled. “It was the biggest learning experience of my life.”

She added: “I had lots of tough conversations with clinicians about behaviours and attitude, but the biggest lesson was that the families didn’t trust us at all as an organisation.”

After six months she took up a position as director of operations at United Lincolnshire Hospitals NHS Trust, which was also going through a difficult period, going in and out of special measures.

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She stayed there a total of nine years – four as COO and then another five as chief nurse after she decided she needed to get back into nursing.

“I decided I’d moved too far away from the patient and I was focusing on targets, and not on the patient,” Ms Rhodes said.

She recalled it was a difficult time.

“We had lots of difficult times with the CQC and I spent many times crying, being stressed at how everybody was working so hard but we didn’t seem to be getting anywhere,” she said.

“That was a long while ago now and they’ve moved on significantly, but for me it was really tough.”

In 2019 Ms Rhodes returned to Staffordshire, taking up the position of chief nurse and director of infection prevention control at University Hospitals of North Midlands NHS Trust, which was formed after the dissolution of the Mid Staffs trust and took over the hospital at the centre of the scandal.

Ms Rhodes remembered the transformation that had taken place since she had been there as COO.

Michelle Rhodes as a young nurse

Michelle Rhodes as a young nurse

“I can’t tell you the difference!” she told Nursing Times. “I walked the wards everyday and saw the care that I’d want for my mum and dad.

“The work that was done there – which I’d contributed to at the beginning but didn’t see it through – it’s just fantastic.

“It is just a different hospital now with lovely staff and teams, and patients get great care there. It was a great place to work and I really did love it.”

Her achievements in North Midlands included helping to develop the international nurse pipeline. But some of the most difficult moments in her career occurred there too, when the Covid-19 pandemic arrived.

“It was really tough,” she remembered.

“We had a couple of members of staff who died from Covid and they had worked there for years and years.

“Their funeral cortège came through the hospital grounds and all of us lined up to watch. It was heartbreaking.

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“I felt responsible as the chief nurse. I felt responsible as the director of infection prevention control.”

Michelle Rhodes in a Covid-19 vaccination centre wearing her nurse uniform, a visor and face covering

Michelle Rhodes getting ready to deliver her first Covid-19 vaccinations

Together with other members of the executive team at the trust who were nurses, Ms Rhodes did what she could, helping out in the intensive care unit as an assistant and delivering nearly 1,000 Covid-19 vaccinations.

“The camaraderie, the way that people gave up their personal lives, their everything to put everything into it was just one of the most astonishing things I’ve ever seen. Also one of the scariest and the saddest to be part of,” she said.

Then in June 2021 she took up her current position of chief nurse and director of infection prevention control at Nottingham University Hospitals, just as the scale of the failings in maternity services at the trust were beginning to come to light.

One of Ms Rhodes’ responsibilities has been implementing a maternity transformation plan and working with Donna Ockenden on the Independent Review of Maternity Services at Nottingham University Hospitals that is currently underway.

“I had some really tough times in Lincoln where things didn’t go right for patients and it was hard, and then going to Mid Staffs was hard, but actually meeting some of the families in Nottingham who have been so traumatised by their experience is probably the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life,” Ms Rhodes said.

“We have seen improvements. Our data shows that we’re improving. We’ve had an uplift in our CQC assessments, but there’s still so much more to do – as there is everywhere in maternity, but it’s been so hard,” she noted.

Notwithstanding the challenges, Ms Rhodes remembered her first day as chief nurse at Nottingham University Hospitals as being “like a fairy tale”.

“I applied for this post and 35 years later, exactly to the month, I walked back into NUH where I trained as the chief nurse,” she said. “Coming home was great.”

On her first day back at the Nottingham University Hospitals she went to visit the burns unit where she had worked on first qualifying as a nurse.

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“Behind the desk was the sister who was a staff nurse who I worked with there in 1990! There’s a handful of them who are still there,” she said.

“To see them all, who had put their whole lives into managing this group of patients and caring for them, it was just amazing really.”

Among her proudest achievements in recent years is helping others tackle problems around racism at the trust by helping establish a director role for inclusion.

Ms Rhodes’ decision to retire has been more than a year in the making. She and her husband agreed to both go part-time 18 months ago when they bought a pair of wirehaired Hungarian Vizsla puppies that require a lot of care and attention.

“And I agreed at the time, knowing these dogs would need a lot of care, that we’d both go part time, and I’ve never gone part time! My husband did but I never have – I’ve just kept going and going,” Ms Rhodes said.

She plans to spend more time with her family, and take life a bit easier, after having sustained a foot injury a few months ago that has forced her to slow down a bit.

But Ms Rhodes said she would definitely keep working in a part time capacity.

To begin with she will continue to provide support to the Independent Maternity Review at Nottingham University Hospitals, although that will soon be taken over by new chief nurse Tracy Pilcher, who is joining the trust from the Coventry and Warwickshire Integrated Care Board in March.

Later this year Ms Rhodes has been asked to take on a management role at the Florence Nightingale Foundation on a temporary basis.

Ms Rhodes said: “I’ve never worked for a charity, so that will be completely different to be able to do that. I’m looking forward to it.”

But she admitted that leaving Nottingham University Hospitals at the end of March was going to be hard: “I’m going to be gutted walking out of here. I don’t know how I’m going to do it – I’ll just have to sneak out on the day that I go.”

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