Scot­tish Real-life

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.

No. 1 Magazine - - CONTENTS -

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.

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