Health Protection…who knew there were so many public health threats?

In preparation for the interview I had scoured Google for references to the HPA and related links that came up. It looked like a really interesting agency to work for, so much going on both locally and internationally. I was really excited about the potential of getting the job but was also concerned that I didn’t have all the skills they needed. As I left for the interview my wife said “don’t be disappointed if you don’t get it”. I think, like me, she thought this was a step too far. I think this was more about the enormity of the job and our imminent future than my skills though.

The interview was intense, all the reading I had done meant I knew the panels public persona quite well. Dr Bennett had worked in Dorset for a long time and I’d read lots of presentations and comments on public health made by her as well as responses to possible terrosist threats in the area. Dr Salter had his name associated with all thing WHO and major international outbreaks. Remember SARS? Well he was there, in Singapore, seeking answers and providing advice. The nurse on the interview panel was Sue, she was linked with lots of great work on tuberculosis.

It was a good interview. I had some luck on my side as I was able to talk about the chemical incident on ITU, it’s impact upon me and how I wanted to be be able to offer the same support I had received to others. I was successful and so in 2007 I became a Health Protection Nurse Specialist. This was a brilliant job that took me all over the country responding to incidents, outbreaks and attending training events. So much so that it may well take me a couple of blogs to do it justice!

The Health Protection Agency, known as the HPA, were a group of experts providing advice to the public, first responders such as fire and rescue service, local and national government as well as international responses to incidents. Think of any major threat to public health and they would have been there, often behind the scenes, providing comments and advice. Incidents such as the Polonium poisoning in London, flooding in Carlisle, avian influenza outbreaks and the pandemic influenza of 2009. In the background and sometimes the foreground the HPA would have been there, investigating and providing advice.

The month after starting the post my little family got bigger with the birth of my youngest son. Thankfully, with the help of a fantastic theatre and maternity team at Poole, this birth was much easier for us all. Well apart from symphysis pubis that put Kate in a wheelchair for a month, but it was still a better experience for us both!

Up until now Kate was still working as an occupational therapist but this was not going to be for long. With 2 children under 5, managing work and life was getting harder to achieve for both of us without one area losing out. As time went on over the next few months Kate left RBCH as an OT to try other jobs that could be more flexible around family life. Judging by how successful she has become, it was the right move for her.

I joined a small unit covering Dorset and Somerset that was part of a regional South West team. The unit was made up of 6 nurses, 4 admin staff, 3 communicable disease consultants and a business manager. We also had rotations of trainee public health consultants joining us for their health protection module. It was a busy place to work and was constantly evolving. In the 7 years I worked for them it went through 2 name changes, 4 mergers and was constantly under the threat of a base move.

My main base was only 4 miles from home but I often travelled to the Taunton base to work with the nurses and consultants over there. These were fun days and I was extremely proud to work with such a highly thought of team. Day to day we ran telephone answer helplines, taking calls from members of the public, first emergency responders and other health care providers. We would be busy all day covering 2 counties worth of calls. We also received by post (!) all the notifications of infectious diseases from the local acute Trusts. Sometimes though, it was a broadcast from the BBC that alerted us to an incident response and in the first few months I got a real taste of what that could be like.

The BBC reported that a storm had blown a container ship on to a sandbank just off the coast of Devon, as it was so close to Dorset we were called in to help provide advice. There was a hotel set up as a forward base in Weymouth and it was myself, a specialist health emergency planner from the regional HPA team aswell as leads from the Environment Agency, DEFRA and many other government department representatives. The hotel was bursting with people trying to access a tiny WiFi connection, submitting reports and taking calls. The containers on the ship, and by now in the sea, were full of all sorts of chemicals, frozen food, perfume, car parts and many other unknowns that were not listed on the manifest.

You may well remember it from this image…

We spent a week there responding to numerous queries before the acute response phase stopped and we were able to shift to remote advice from our base. As the weeks went on we would get at least one call a day to respond to, these ranged from collapsed salvage crew members overcome by fumes to questions about the impact on shell fish from the huge volumes of chemicals in the water.

The ship was slowly broken up for salvage over the next 18 months so it was a regular source of work for us all. Through it I made close contacts with environment agency staff all of whom I got to work with on other incidents over the next few years.

This was a grounding for working relationships that continued over the next part of my career. It wasn’t all major incidents thought, what I enjoyed most were the smaller incidents and events where the advice provided by the team and myself really made a difference to peoples lives. Sometimes just as reassurance, other times helping them to identify and stop a major source of concern.

More on that in the next blog…

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