Nurse of the Year transforming lives of vulnerable groups

Eric Teague-Hellon spends most of his days and nights nursing, going out of his way to support some of the most vulnerable people living in Staffordshire.

When he is not working full time as a primary care leader at HMP Stafford, giving prisoners the dignified care they deserve, he is volunteering for the charity he set up in 2018, which provides medical outreach to people who are experiencing homelessness.

“If I can find an angle anywhere to help somebody, I’ll go out of my way to do that”

Eric Teague-Hellon

Life-changing interactions throughout his career with service users, including veterans, prisoners and unhoused people, pushed him to undertake the very important work that, ultimately, led to him being crowned Nurse of the Year at the Nursing Times Awards in October 2023.

Mr Teague-Hellon told Nursing Times that being given the award felt like “a massive thank-you and motivational hug” that acknowledged his work.

He also noted that it was a testament to overcoming some personal hurdles himself during his lengthy career.

Mr Teague-Hellon’s passion for supporting vulnerable communities can be traced back to when he worked as a custody nurse for Staffordshire Police, which he did following his return to the UK after working as a nurse in the British Army.

In his police role, Mr Teague-Hellon soon realised that people without housing were frequently detained in custody for committing “low-level crime, just to get somewhere for the night”.

The more he supported people experiencing homelessness through the custody process, the more he came to realise just how disproportionately affected they were by “chronic medical conditions”, including leg ulcers, trench foot, chronic asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and diabetes.

Leg ulcers and the subsequent risk of sepsis were among the biggest physical problems affecting those experiencing homelessness, with some patients even having to have limbs amputated, explained Mr Teague-Hellon.

Despite this risk, he said that many refused to seek help from health services, due to shame and embarrassment about their personal circumstances.

“I realised then that they have still got a lot of pride,” said Mr Teague-Hellon. “I thought, ‘well, if you’re not going to go [to hospital], we’re going to have to go out to you’.”

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From then on, he began visiting people who were experiencing homelessness, either on the street or in day and night shelters, and offered nursing support to help with some of the issues they were facing.

In 2017, Mr Teague-Hellon himself hit a “rock-bottom place”, which led to him being diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) resulting from his experiences while on operational tours as an army nurse.

These had included working on the front lines in Iraq and supporting Sierra Leone’s response to the Ebola epidemic.

“It could have ended my career because, with PTSD, my symptoms were awful at the time,” he explained.

Unexpectedly however, the recurring nightmares resulting from the condition granted opportunities for Mr Teague-Hellon – he explained that he threw himself into his voluntary work as a distraction. “I spent more time at the night shelters, and it became a real passion,” he said.

After befriending two fellow veterans at a support group in Newcastle-under-Lyme, Mr Teague-Hellon seized the opportunity to expand the work he had already been doing across Staffordshire.

It was then that  the charity Connect 2 Combat Homelessness (C2CH) – formerly known as Veterans Connect CIC – was launched, which aimed to provide high-quality community support to homeless people living on the street or in shelters, as and when they needed it.

Eric Teague-Hellon receiving his Nurse of the Year award

Charitable donations and grants enabled C2CH to go from strength to strength, and the gift of a welfare van became a turning point for the kind of outreach the charity was able to provide.

Mr Teague-Hellon said: “We could take hot food [and] clothing out to our homeless [community] on the streets. We could cover [a wider] area – that was a real success.”

Meanwhile, a £10,000 grant from the National Lottery Community Fund also enabled the charity’s work to grow exponentially.

Mr Teague-Hellon used this money to invest in more supplies to provide more care, including specialist dressings to properly treat chronic leg ulcers.

“We just really upgraded,” he said. “With the success of what we were doing, we were then able to get a significant number of nurses who volunteered their time with me, so we were able to cover more and more [ground].”

Today, C2CH has a group of NHS nurses, doctors and paramedics who all voluntarily provide care, both in the welfare van and in local homeless and community centres, for people who are experiencing homelessness.

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At the time of writing, Mr Teague-Hellon acknowledged that there was “a cold winter approaching” in the UK, which meant the service would be “really busy”.

In anticipation for the busy winter period, C2CH had revamped its welfare van so that it was equipped with a shower facility, changing room, treatment room and kitchen area.

Mr Teague-Hellon said: “We’ll be the first ones here who, when we go out, will not only be providing medical attention, but also that sought-after hot shower, clean clothes, underwear, hot food. It’s brilliant.”

The progress that C2CH has made since its inception has astounded Mr Teague-Hellon. “We started as a single entity, but now we’re a go-to charity,” he said.

All the while, he continues to support prisoners in his day job at HMP Stafford. In particular, he has offered support to veterans in the prison system, many of whom have PTSD and experience other issues, such as self-harm.

As such, and prompted by his own personal past experiences, in which he felt he had not been listened to, Mr Teague-Hellon launched a veteran’s support group at the prison.

“The self-help groups are for people who have shared the same experience, who have been on the same operational tours [and] who understand,” he said.

However, Mr Teague-Hellon explained that it had been hard, at times, to measure the success of his work, particularly the volunteering.

“When I won, I was absolutely stunned”

Eric Teague-Hellon

He said: “If I was in an NHS setting, it’d probably be down to all the statistics on what we do.

“But we can only go by the stories and the thank-yous we get from the homeless people we meet.

“It’s the simple things – like giving somebody a hot cup of tea, or a pot noodle or a sandwich, and seeing the smiles on their faces.”

Reflecting on all of his successes, Mr Teague-Hellon said he felt it was in his nature to look after people who are vulnerable and, very often, under the radar.

“I think that’s the whole basics of nursing: you can make somebody always feel like there’s somebody there, which is brilliant,” he said.

“I’m driven to help anybody. My reward is seeing that smile at the end of it. If I can find an angle anywhere to help somebody, I’ll go out of my way to do that.”

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Mr Teague-Hellon added that he felt “immensely proud” when he was announced as Nurse of the Year at the Nursing Times Awards 2023, and that it showed he had “come out the other side” from his personal struggles.

“When I won, I was absolutely stunned,” he said. “As a nurse, the achievement of doing that was absolutely fantastic.”

Mr Teague-Hellon urged fellow nurses to apply for the next round of the awards, to showcase the amazing work they may be doing in their own communities.

He said: “The thing is with Nursing Times, there’s not a better place, in my eyes, to get what you do out there. I’ve got my award in my office in the night shelter. People come in and I can say ‘I’m Nurse of the Year’ and I love it.”

There are big plans for the future of C2CH, but funding is one of the main issues in sustaining the kind of services the charity can provide, Mr Teague-Hellon explained.

He said he hoped his award would raise the profile of the work he does, which could encourage further funding into the pipeline.

Eventually, the charity hopes to open a permanent and central space that will operate as both a day and night shelter.

This building would “facilitate alcohol and drug support teams, and mental health counselling”, as well as practical support for things like benefits.

Mr Teague-Hellon said: “We’ll have a single point of contact for our homeless [community]. A couple of years back, I would have thought that was probably a bit too far. But having seen the successes we’ve been making, and that I have been making, with the charity, it’s within arm’s reach now.”

Eric Teague-Hellon’s career history

2004 – Recruited to join the 202 Field Hospital in Birmingham as a combat medic, while working on a general surgical unit

2005 – Deployed to Iraq as a trauma team leader in an emergency department at a British military field hospital

2006 – Joined the James Cook University Hospital in Middlesbrough, as part of the Ministry of Defence Hospital Unit Northallerton, as the emergency department and critical care rotation lead

2009 – Joined Merseyside Police as a forensic nurse practitioner

2015 – Joined Staffordshire Police as a forensic custody nurse

2018 – Founded Veterans Connect CIC

2021 – Became primary care team leader with Practice Plus Group at HMP Stafford

2023 – Veterans Connect CIC changed its name to Connect 2 Combat Homelessness and became a registered charity

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