For the last 12 years, nurse Shirley Rawlings has devoted a fortnight of every summer to looking after Cornwall Army Cadets on their annual camp.
On a typical day on camp she might have 40 or more cadets reporting to her daily first-aid triage clinic with a variety of bumps and bruises, headaches and upset stomachs – or just not looking forward to fieldcraft exercises.
One or two may warrant a referral to the NHS drop-in clinic or even an ambulance to A&E and a precautionary X-ray.
Shirley’s practised eye and intuition are just as alert to issues and conditions affecting the youngsters’ psychological well-being – she has specific qualifications in Mental Health for Youth and Adults and in counselling too.
Other ACFs have also benefited from her professional expertise and devotion to duty, but the youngsters from Cornwall have occupied a special place in her affections since she first encountered them in 2005 as the lead nurse at Browndown Camp in Hampshire.
“I do this purely because I enjoy it,” says Shirley. “I love seeing the kids come through and even develop into adult instructors. In 2005 Cornwall ACF welcomed me with open arms and so warmly. I worked at Browndown with various ACFs but Cornwall stole my heart! They look after me. They value me.”
Until recently, her approach has been to provide full-on nursing care – the assessment and treatment of minor illnesses and injuries along with responsibility for holding and dispensing of all medication.
“That’s changed now,” explains Shirley. “The Army wants nurses just to have a supervisory role in a first aid capacity.”
That does cover a first aid triage clinic but some 40 per cent of cadets now arrive on camp with personal medication, including controlled drugs. “Holding these securely on behalf of a cadet is too much of a responsibility for an adult volunteer first-aider to take on, in my view” says Shirley.
The work of nurses like Shirley while on ACF camps is governed not just by Army regulations but by their own professional code of conduct, as laid down by the Nursing and Midwifery Council.
She explained: “It requires us, depending on our own competencies, to prioritise the safety of patients. And that’s whether we are working in a hospital or being out in public – or here as a nurse in a cadet camp.”
Shirley spent 22 years at RNH Haslar military hospital at Gosport, in A&E and high-dependency, ITU, orthopaedic and other departments. She now works on a military base in Hampshire, triaging patients in a ‘practice nurse’ role. That draws on her additional skills in safeguarding and duty of care in child protection scenarios.
On camp, she finds herself in a similar role on camp in her first-aid triage clinics, no longer called ‘sick parades’.
“Children see a nurse in uniform and feel safe. They trust me,” says Shirley, who is married with two grown-up children and three grandchildren. “And if they disclose any issues I’m able to deal with them.
“If they turn up day after day, and without any obvious problem, there’s invariably something they want to talk about. It’s usually on the third visit. I dig a bit deeper and might then give them some counselling but we follow our safeguarding and reporting procedures.
“It’s not a case of delivering physical first aid but it’s ‘mental health first aid’ and that can be more important.”
Regimental Sergeant Tony Allen, first aid training adviser to both cadets and adult instructors within Cornwall ACF, said: “Shirley is invaluable. If we didn’t have her it would probably be down to myself and others to man a first aid room.
“But we’re not trained to do triage – just to do first aid, to treat a cut or minor burns. And, of course, if we send them to a doctor or NHS drop-in centre – or even call an ambulance – two adults instructors have to accompany them.”
The self-employed carpenter has 24 years’ experience, in two stints, as an adult volunteer. Tony shares Shirley’s satisfaction, even elation, at seeing cadets strive and succeed.
“We’ve a young cadet on camp this year with a severe epilepsy issue, so we’ve all worked really hard to make sure he achieves things on camp,” he said. “So just too see him with a big smile on his face at cookhouse after a successful afternoon on the shooting range is worth everything.”
If you are interested in volunteering your time to support young people in the Cadet organisation, there are a number of role in Cornwall and across the South West.
To find out more information about opportunities in your area, visit; https://www.wessex-rfca.org.uk/cadets/