Sharleen Johnston, 48 from Hamilton, decided to volunteer as a nurse in Afghanistan, not only for the British troops but for the local people too.
Charge Nurse Sharleen Johnston, talks to No.1 about volunteering to care in Afghanistan with the Army Reserve, and how her amazing career helped her through her husband’s cancer diagnosis. I didn’t train as a nurse until I was 30 – I did everything back to front! I married really young and had three children by the time I was 23. I then got divorced and when I was 29, I married my husband, Alan, and decided to go to university.
I immediately liked the diversity of nursing and I have been in high dependency and intensive care since 2003. You’re right into every aspect of care with patients in those wards, you’re supporting all of their organs and getting them through the toughest times. Sometimes you do lose patients but I always feel quite privileged to have been able to do those last things for them.
While I was studying, I went to a recruitment fair and the Army Reserve were there. They were offering really good training and it felt like something out of the ordinary and so I decided to join up. I left when I qualified to concentrate on learning my trade, but a few years later I rejoined. I went back partly because my middle son, Kristofer, had joined the regularr army and was in the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders.
I found the physical training very difficult. Obviously training physically gets harder the older you get but there was lots of extra medical training available with the Army Reserves. The training was one of the things that attracted me to the military the most – plus it was an incentive to get fit as well!
In 2013 I volunteered to go to Afghanistan. I wanted to go because I knew I had the skills to help anyone there who was injured. I wanted to help not only our guys and the allied forces, but the local people as well. I wanted to do my bit – you can’t just take all the time.
I told Alan that I wanted to volunteer and I think he understood why as we knew that Kristofer could be going there. If Alan had the choice, he didn’t want me to go but he was very supportive. My daughter, Jessica, was really upset about it but my sons thought it was quite cool! Jessica was pregnant at the time and I think that made it a bit more difficult, she was worried and wanted me to get home safe.
In the end I was chosen to go to Afghanistan and Kristofer wasn’t as he was injured. I felt a bit apprehensive while I was on the journey there, but once I arrived, getting into the swing of it was fine. It was just a bit strange walking to work with a loaded weapon. I wasn’t frightened at all, it’s probably one of the safest places I have been. I didn’t really think about the danger, I thought about the guys going out on the ground and what would happen to them. You are always mindful of who was coming in and if they were injured and what family they had. You couldn’t think about it too much because you would send yourself off your head, you just had to get on with it.
It was non-stop and nursing in a hostile environment means thinking outside of the box. Some of the wounds we dealt with were very upsetting and I treated a lot of Afghan nationals. I didn’t really get to know the people I was treating – particularly being a woman and we were always very respectful of the culture.
I was also mindful of the support that Afghan patients had after they left us. If a British soldier has a leg blown off, they have life long care at home, but what is the care going to be like after they have been discharged from our hospital? That played quite heavily on my mind. Sometimes it was quite difficult not to think too much about what was going to happen to them after they left. The main thing is that you have done the best you possibly can for them and given them a fighting chance at life.
The camaraderie and the team work really gets you through. Everyone knows everyone and you all have quite a strong bond. Although I had three grandchildren when I was deployed so I was in the minority there! There aren’t many grannies in Afghanistan to my knowledge and there are things that I know how to do now that a gran of six probably wouldn’t, like fire a weapon!
I really struggled with the heat in Afghanistan. I had worked so hard to get there and it was tough to realise that it was all going down the tubes. I got to the stage that I was struggling to function, I have never felt so ill in my life and they put it down to heat exhaustion. They take that very seriously as people die of it. Being flown back to the UK early was gutting, feeling ill was bad but it was more the psychological effect of having to down tools and go home.
My family were delighted to have me back and my husband drove 500 miles to pick me up. It was hard to come home without the rest of the team and the troops that I went out with but I had to put my health first. I really don’t know how people fought in that temperature, I just want to shake the hand of anyone who has been out there.
Just over a year after I returned from Afghanistan, my daughter, Jessica, told me she was expecting a little girl. Lola was born on the 22nd of August 2015 and then, just five days later, we received my husband’s diagnosis. We were on such a high with having a granddaughter and our feet were taken from under us when Alan was diagnosed with oropharyngeal cancer.
For a while prior to the diagnosis, Alan had occasionally been choking or coughing when he ate. One day he asked me to feel his neck and there was a hard 10p sized lump under his jaw bone. I told him to go and get it checked. Our GP was really proactive and referred him to Glasgow Royal Infirmary for a biopsy.
He was then called in for a CT Scan and I just knew that there was something. At the appointment I knew what the surgeon was going to say just by his body language. He explained that they had found a tumour in Alan’s neck at the base of his tongue and that it was quite extensive.
Although I had tried to prepare myself, it was still a shock to hear the diagnosis. We then had to wait four weeks until Alan could start his treatment and that was horrendous – worse than child birth. It was so frustrating because I just wanted that tumour out.
Alan started his treatment in September 2015 and had two lots of chemotherapy and six weeks of radiotherapy. I didn’t realise how tough the radiotherapy was going to be on him. He’s a big strong man but he was absolutely wiped out by it. I think that was what distressed me the most, it was like looking after a child. In a way I think my nursing experience got me through, I’m used to lots of tubes and wires and that made me feel like I was in control. I felt like I knew what I was doing and no one could care for him better than me – that was my coping mechanism.
In March 2016, Alan received the all clear as his tumour was gone. Now he gets tired quite easily and it seemed like he
aged overnight but I’m just so grateful that he’s still alive. We have been really fortunate as he had a really good team looking after him. He is still on four monthly check ups, so it is something that’s always there and we just need to keep hoping.
Alan’s tumour was human papillomavirus (HPV) driven which is the same virus that causes cervical cancer. Girls are given the HPV vaccine when they are at school but they don’t immunise boys. That’s why I started working to raise awareness for head and neck cancer and HPV, particularly because it is striking men down in their prime. I am trying to lobby the Scottish government to get them to be the first in the UK to immunise boys as well as girls. The USA, Canada, Australia and Austria all offer gender neutral vaccination.
Head and neck cancer is the sixth most common kind of cancer. Since Alan’s diagnosis, I have been working to raise money and awareness of this illness. I had always wanted to walk the Great Wall of China and I was put in touch with a lady called Cath Clark. Cath had quite a debilitating tumour in her sinuses and part of her face had been rebuilt. We got chatting and she wanted to do something to raise money so we decided to do the Great Wall together in 2016. It was absolutely fantastic! It was very hard work and I had to train quite a bit as there are a lot of steps and hill climbing involved. We walked for eight hours a day for six days and we got to put a bit of brick in the part of the wall that is being rebuilt – I put it in with a little note. We raised about £13.5k in total and we are thinking about doing something else soon – possibly a cycle across Vietnam and Cambodia!
Alan’s diagnosis was definitely a game changer for me. I thought I had nailed every aspect of caring but I think seeing it from a relative perspective has enhanced my career and the care that I can give. If anything good has come out of the diagnosis, that would be it. I now know exactly how that person feels for their wife or husband because I have done it myself. I know exactly what to offer people and what to say because I know what I would have wanted to hear.
My job and having been in Afghanistan is very humbling, it makes me very thankful and drives me on. I see how fragile things can be; one minute everything is fine but the next second you could be snuffed out and that’s it, game over. I think you have to live for every moment – you’re not here for a long time. I’m approaching 50 and there are still hundreds of things I want to do – I want to fit it all in and that’s what keeps me going. You have to be thankful for every minute and I am so thankful that I have been given more time with my husband. You have to grasp it, get out there and get on with it!
I see how fragile things can be; one minute everything is fine but the next second you could be snuffed out... you have to live for every moment. Scotland’s No.1 for
Sharleen volunteered to serve in Afghanistan.
Sharleen and Alan in 2016.
Raising awareness of head and neck cancer.
Sharleen with her husband, Alan.
Sharleen walking The Great Wall.
Sharleen embarked on a charity walk.