Guinness, the Mourne mountains and COVID-19 recovery

In January 2021, Lecturer in Education, Conor Hamiltons’ dad contracted Covid. In this blog post, Conor reflects on the impact of not being connected to him during his illness and on using his Dads connection with the Mournes (and Guinness) to  aid his recovery.

By now just about everyone on the planet is aware of Covid-19. Very few have been untouched by its grasp. Since March 2020 we have all had to change the way we live our lives, be it work, school, shopping, exercise, face to face socialising or visiting family. We have missed parties, pubs, restaurants, holidays and foreign travel. Parents became teachers. Nurses and doctors became unlikely superheroes. As nurses and nursing students some of us were redeployed from our normal day to day jobs to frontline nursing and caring for the sickest of those affected. Personally, I was redeployed from running endoscopy lists in a Day Procedure Unit, to night shifts in Covid Emergency Theatre and having to run from Theatre to the Respiratory Ward or E.D. to intubate the sickest patients and bring them to ICU via the CT scanner. I would be lying if I said I wasn’t affected. We all were whether we care to admit it or not. I know some of those patients sadly didn’t make it. I took my work home with me every morning and I thought about little else until I went back in again that night.

My family remained untouched directly by Covid until January 2021. My parents are both in their seventies. My mother has multiple comorbidities but my father is an ex-marathon runner, and indeed clocked 2 hours 38 minutes for the distance in the mid-eighties. He still walks ten miles a day, and loves hiking in the Mournes. For almost a year they isolated and did everything by the book. My family and my brother’s family visited the back yard and spoke to them through the glass window of the porch. They exercised once daily in Loughgall Park or Gosford Forest Park and stayed within a short radius of home. Shopping was all done online. Yet somewhere over the Christmas period of 2020 Covid caught up with them. Mum had mild flu-like symptoms. Dad initially had the same, but on 7th January his chest became tight and the GP was called. He was ill, but not ill enough for hospital. We were told to monitor him overnight and ring 999 if he deteriorated. Being a typical man, he went off to bed assuring us he would call if he got any worse. At 8am the next morning, my mother found him almost blue, struggling to breathe with oxygen saturation levels below 80%. He didn’t want to go to hospital so he decided to tough it out overnight and hope it would clear up. He was blue-lighted to Craigavon Hospital and the paramedic said had he waited another hour he might not have made it.

So began a month of no contact with dad other than text messaging and passing messages via nursing staff. Dad doesn’t do technology so Facetime, Whatsapp and all those other video messaging services were out the window. It was this very week that I started as a Lecturer in Nursing at Queen’s and I also tested positive for Covid four days after my first vaccination. So, mum was on her own, dad was in hospital and we were all isolating. It was a pretty busy and stressful week. Having been called out to 2 North Respiratory a number of times to help intubate patients while working in Covid Emergency Theatre, I could picture the scene and appreciate what was going on around him.

Dad continued to deteriorate over the next two weeks to the point where he was put on CPAP and told the next step was ICU and ventilation. He found the CPAP intolerable and not only was he physically deteriorating, but mentally he had reached rock bottom. His friend from school, over 60 years ago, had passed away suddenly overnight as a result of Covid in the bed next to him. Dad then developed pulmonary emboli (clots on his lungs). At his lowest ebb, he rang my mum one morning and said he didn’t think he would make it out of hospital, and gave her his bank account details – that’s how we knew he was really sick!

Not knowing how to lift his spirits, myself and my brother David decided to set him a goal. We promised him we’d have a pint of Guinness on top of Doan (one of the smallest peaks in the Mournes) when he recovered. Every time we spoke to him on the phone between then and his discharge weeks later, we reminded him of the goal. For six weeks after discharge either myself or David would call for dad, no matter what the weather, and take him for a walk at 6pm. He started with 400 meters on 8 litres of oxygen pushing a rollator. Again, being a proud man, known around Armagh and beyond for his marathon exploits in the eighties, he would not go out in daylight with the rollator – this was all done under cover of darkness, wearing a big hat and a buff! Over the six weeks we weaned him off the oxygen and increased the distance gradually. Eventually he was walking six miles non-stop with no oxygen. On 1st of April he rang and said he was ready for Doan on the 3rd – I thought it was an April Fool prank, but no, he was ready. His two youngest grandchildren were there to set an easy pace, and in just over 2 hours we had walked the four miles to Doan and made it to the summit. I had three cans of Guinness with me and three glasses to fulfil the promise. That’s him below with the pint…. on Doan. It was a perfect day. It wasn’t a bad pint either. Just before we took this photo we met two of the anaesthetists from Craigavon who were delighted to see him up there. I think they got a bit of a lift from seeing the benefits of their work.

I posted this photo on the Mourne Mountains Hiking Facebook page and it was picked up by a member who is a journalist for the Irish News. They ran a story about dad’s pint of Guinness on Doan and stated that the photo was “the” photo of the pandemic. The Newsletter then picked it up. BBC Radio Ulster rang and did an interview with us on their morning slot. It went to my dad’s head a bit and he started practicing his signature for autographs. We were told last week that the story had made it to newspapers in India, via Canada. Good news seems to travel fast. It seems everyone wants to grab a positive story from the pandemic.

I’m extremely proud of my dad. He is back to walking eight to ten miles a day with his wee rucksack on his back. He takes a stick now, just for a bit of peace of mind. I’m not sure if he takes any Guinness though. If nothing else this wee tale shows the benefits of goal setting in recovery. I’m not sure what would have happened to dad if we hadn’t set him a goal. I’m not sure if it was the goal that helped him recover, or the fact that he realised he had given mum access to his bank account. I like to think it was the goal. He has since changed his bank account password. Set yourself goals in life – believe and you can achieve. Never give out your bank account details. Stay safe.

A New Mental Health Nursing blog

The mental health team recently started their own blog on mental health nursing and the connectedness that it bring with students and the wider mental health family. Here, blog editor Colin Hughes introduces the mental health nursing blog.

The first school blog- ‘connected learning’ – that launched late last year is I feel a very timely resource for both Staff and Students.  In many ways this blog demonstrates the need to highlight the similarities we share across all fields of Nursing and Midwifery, rather than working in an isolated fashion it is important to connect with each other to improve our practice.  

This leads to improved competency and confidence and a better joined up service provision which can only improve the lives of those we care for.  This concept of improved service delivery through a greater shared understand, via connected knowledge transfer has been highlighted by the creation of the Nursing and Midwifery’s (NMC) (2020) new pre-registration educational standards.  Enshrined within these educational standards we see a greater emphasis on the similarities shared by all fields of Nursing and an acknowledgement that we can no longer practice in ‘silos’, rather we need an enhanced understanding of each other’s practice areas. 

This additional knowledge is not about becoming an expert in all areas but is about having additional knowledge and skills which allow us to improve the physical and psychological wellbeing of those under our care.  These additional but less specified skills also permit for more efficient pathways of care a ‘connected network’ which allows for better understanding of and sharing of information.  All of this greater understanding and sharing of information through a new open connected and collegiate relationship does not diminish the role of the field specific practitioner, but simply allows for a better practitioner.  This new connected agenda can only be promoted and moved forward through greater understanding of each other and each other’s profession, facilitated by the NMC’s (2020) new standards.  Of course, this can only work if we in education in collaboration with our service side partners and all stakeholders, embrace rather than resist this new philosophy.

The Connected Learning Blog is a platform which can act as a natural fulcrum for us all to present knowledge, ask questions provide answers to help all of us in this journey of open understanding.  The Mental Health Nursing Blog perhaps the first of several field specific blogs is one which will support the philosophy of the Connect Learning Blog and one of shared understanding and learning.  This can only be successful if we all engage with these platforms, while it is true  common early adopters of these platforms will be staff and within the staff body those comfortable in the use of such platforms,  it is important that students, patients, carers, service colleagues and all those interested in improving patient care ‘connect together’ to push this agenda forward.  Improving our understanding of each other, broadening our own knowledge base, understanding, and embracing each other’s perspective and fields can only improve the care we can deliver to our patients and their carers. 

The Mental Health Nursing blog can be found here

Steps in the right direction


In this post Alison Smart & Deirdre O’Neill reflect on embedding self care into the nursing curriculum and introduce the all school walking challenge.

It isn’t too long ago as a deputy charge nurse that I remember struggling to sleep knowing that our staffing levels the next day were not met and wondering how that ICU patient was doing after their surgery. We as a profession of Nurses & Midwives can often deal with very difficult situations and forget about ourselves amongst the maelstrom. This issue has resurfaced in a profound way over the last 12 months of the pandemic with working from home making it very difficult to switch off – I’m sure a lot of you can resonate with this. 

In addition to our career pressures, you are the go-to person for friends and families. Therefore, it is imperative that we, staff, students and the profession as a whole start to look after ourselves and carve out time on a daily basis to fill that cup so we can pour from it in the future. This couldn’t be more true in Northern Ireland – we have a workforce crisis within nursing, so we need to do all we can to manage our well-being and in turn increase recruitment and retention. 

With the introduction of the new curricula, I thought this was the perfect opportunity to embed and promote “Self-Care for Health Care” within the School of Nursing. Due to the new NMC proficiency of ensuring you are in good health this seemed like an ideal opportunity to put this into practice in Year 1 Professionalism in Nursing. 

Each week the students discovered a new activity to undertake, placed visibly within the module material for the week (see Box 1). Students were then asked to reflect and identify how they felt before the activity and how they felt after. 

The feedback received from staff & students was overwhelmingly positive with one of the standout highlights being the step challenge. 

“It is easy, effective and we can all do it” 

“Loved it, got me out and about again” 

“I felt so good after my morning walks”. 

We virtually climbed Mont Blanc and Jo Mc Mullan stormed in front when we headed to the Mediterranean and raced up Corsica (220,000 steps in January). We used a clever and easy app (SQUADS) that allows a forum to message, input steps, share motivation and a healthy dose of competition. 

After speaking with colleagues & sharing the app. Deirdre O’Neill tried it out with Year 2. Let’s hear how they got on: 

After hearing the success of the walking challenge in year one I could not wait to pitch the idea so the students on their return to phase five. With the help of Chloe Gardiner (year two student nurse) a challenge was set up each week for all of us to complete. We divided into three teams and competed against each other encouraging each other to win the weekly challenge.  Initially the challenge was only too last six weeks but because we all see the benefit of not only daily exercise, but we were also able to connect with each other in this virtual platform.  Students were encouraged to share photos of their walking sceneries, so we had pictures of forests, beaches and country lanes.  We saw snow falls and the beginning of the touches of spring.  Each week at the start or end of class we would share our walking stories and because of the laughter and connection it has brought us we will continue the challenge when the students begin their next placement.  

Due to popular demand and with momentum on our side we are holding a walking challenge for staff and students alike as part of QUBbeWell week. The challenge will consist of a Race up Corsica Canyon (69,750 steps) from Monday to Friday. We invite you all to come on board and join the fun. All you need to do is open the link on your phone and join the squad. 

We have also secured some great prizes including a six-month PEC membership in collaboration with Queens Sport and a two-week meal supply kindly donated by Primal Fox Nutrition. In addition to the first 3 people to reach the virtual summit, we have also got a prize for the best picture from all your walks, so get snapping! 

Any questions regarding the app, well-being material or if you fancy a chat, just get in touch or

‘Practicing what we preach’: Teaching mental health and wellbeing in a pandemic.

In this post Karen Galway, Pauline McCarthy, Debbie Duncan and Aine Aventin (with contributions from the module teaching team and Sept ’19 nursing cohort) practice what they preach and reflect on an initiative to protect their own and their students mental health.

Picture the scene: It’s September 2020 and a second wave of Covid-19 pandemic has started impacting our health Service in Northern Ireland. Semester one of 2020/21 in the School of Nursing and Midwifery starts in a few short weeks. Our students face continued uncertainty about the future of their degree programme. Teaching is now online with students on campus for essential skills only. Whether the programme will follow the usual pattern of six weeks on campus and six weeks of placement is anyone’s guess.

Our brand new undergraduate nursing curriculum, developed pre-covid, rubber stamped by the Nursing and Midwifery Council, now needs fleshed out under totally new and by now, clichéd unprecedented circumstances. Learning curves are steep, tensions are high and energy is [at times] low.

One teaching team is focused on a new module; Working inter-professionally to improve mental health and wellbeing. This module isn’t presenting a new topic per se, but it presents a consolidated approach to teaching mental health to nursing students, during the toughest of times. With two Lecturers co-ordinating plus eight teaching staff, the module team must now place a new level of focus on mental health and wellbeing for all nursing specialties; adult, children’s, learning disability and mental health.

Week one focuses on models of mental health and wellbeing, stigma and discrimination along with self-care. We introduce mindfulness, self-care principles for nurses and an overview of how covid-19 may be impacting on nurses’ mental health. Week two considers social epidemiology and inequalities to address risk and protective factors for mental health and wellbeing. We also address communication skills and the basics of a mental state examination. Week three addresses issues related to self-harm and suicidal ideation and prevention. It’s challenging content, for lecturers and students alike, in challenging times, taught under challenging conditions.

We worry about how the students and the staff will manage the online environment. We worry about whether we will recognise who is struggling or indeed over identifying with the content. Beyond our self-care content, we also provide links to support, across the university and in the community and we consistently remind our students to reach out and to practice self-care.

Despite our efforts, there seems no easy way to maintain our connections to the students while we all get used to these new technologies and grapple with a new societal normal. Meanwhile three other modules are in full swing for these year two students. We are still groping about awkwardly with a lot of the processes such as developing a meaningful attendance monitoring policy. The timetable can feel brutal, with students and teaching staff online, in classes for up to 6 hours straight. Still ahead in our module specification is week four, focused on physical and mental health interactions, week five addressing trauma informed practice and adverse childhood experiences, with the final week explaining the symptoms of common mental health problems and an understanding of the stepped care model and other useful supportive responses.

Something about this feels very wrong. We are teaching the students about mental health and wellbeing in the middle of a pandemic, while expecting staff and students to perform as normal. In reality, nothing inside or outside of university life is feeling anything like normal.

Day one and week one involve shell shock and eye strain. The materials are well received but the challenge of online delivery intensifies. After two weeks of teaching at ‘business as usual’ pace, we stop to consider this rock of necessary progress against the hard place of exhaustion, frustration, worry and potential disengagement. We brainstorm on how to give ourselves and the students some space to breathe. Can we alter our timetabling? Can we switch live content to recorded content? Would that help? Can we provide adequate breaks and importantly can we identify students who are struggling?

A few actions were tabled and adjustments made to the format for week three. We decide to cut back screen time. In our mental wellbeing module we replace a live online tutorial with a self-care activity.

Students were notified that the two-hour session would now involve a discussion board, instead of a live session. We sent a simple request that the students go and “practice what we’ve been preaching”. The instructions were to take the time to do something to protect and maintain their mental wellbeing, to post a photo or video and comment about the activity on a discussion board. That amounted to a small concession to the Covid-teaching challenge, but it had a big impact.

Within 10 days the discussion generated 546 posts, 250+ photos of stunning autumn scenes, a variety of video clips, poetry, art, music, pet appreciation, baking and a huge amount of shared joy!

A selection of photos and comments from the discussion board

We can confirm that the Sept 19 students are a cohort of dog-lovers, walkers, runners, sports stars, artists, empathetic and caring parents, siblings, children, flat mates and all round philosophers. Contributions were authentic, honest and entertaining personal accounts of how each individual took care of their mental wellbeing, in two hours of me- time, designated for self-care. Reading and commenting on the joy of free time, downtime, the positivity and the creativity was more than a pleasure. It was addictive! Perhaps the discussion board felt like a surrogate for the missing sense of community that the pandemic has taken away. Perhaps it should not be surprising that such a simple idea was embraced in such complicated times.

Acknowledging student contributions
Sept ‘19 undegraduate nursing students: Leon Daly, Shannon Campbell, Cliodhna McIntryre, Marianna Donahue, Deirdre Boyle, Siobhan Duffy, Emma Shields, Chloe Truesdale, Edelle Brown, Caroline Devlin, Roisin McCann, Holly Brown, Megan Elloitt, Roisin Byrne, Orlagh Carson, Santina Campbell, Heather Gould, Caitlin Duffy, Grace Espie. Thanks for allowing us to share your discussion posts and photos.

It would be great to hear how you have managed your own mental health or that of your students since the beginning of the academic year. Comment below- or send us a photo!

Empathy + Communication = Connection

To mark International Mens Day, School of Nursing and Midwifery Head of School, Prof. Donna Fitzsimons reflects on the connection made between her brother when he was ill and a male nurse, and argues that the profession and our patients would benefit from more men in nursing.

My name is Donna Fitzsimons and I’d like to share a short story with you that as a Head of a busy School of Nursing & Midwifery where less than 10% of our undergraduate students are male, I tend to reflect on quite a lot. 

It starts some 20 years ago now, when my brother Joe was 32 and he was diagnosed with a Ewing’s Sarcoma in his spine. This was a big shock to Joe who was an average sort of guy – a builder, married with three kids and a strong circle of family and friends. He was very much a man’s man, if you know what I mean, liked a pint with his mates and a game of golf at the weekend.

From the word ‘Go’, the odds were 50/50 at best, and the gruelling 3 weekly chemo would last almost a year and require a minimum of 3 days hospitalisation for each one. A self-employed guy, Joe had to give up work, he lost his hair and he was pretty sick and sore. Despite that he loved a joke, was competitive on the Mirror Crossword and when I called up to see him at lunchtimes he was usually found begging the nurses to speed the drip and let him out of there. He hated living in pyjamas, wasting daylight and going bald. 

More importantly he hated sympathy or being treated as a sick person and that’s where Mark came in. He was a Staff Nurse on the chemo unit, always ready to have chat about his golf game, or seek Joe’s advice on how to fix a leaking flat or get new double glazing. Mark saw beyond the pallid guy pushing a drip around and helped Joe connect with his usual identity. They developed a therapeutic connection that really made that treatment journey less toxic to my brother; and all the more so when the cancer returned – when treatment had to start all over again, and when Joe acknowledged his days were numbered. 

In those days Mark came into his own and helped Joe get his head round some of the most challenging of physical and mental issues – usually with a joke or a pat on the back and a palpable ‘we’re in this together’, shoulder to shoulder approach.  Mark was a fabulous nurse, he had great empathy and communication skills, exemplifying that these are not gender specific qualities and that they are at the very heart of our professional practice as nurses and midwives.

I often reflect whether this was a gender issue? Were all the female nurses who cared for Joe in such an exemplary way not able to provide the kind of support that he got from Mark, just because they weren’t a man? I don’t really believe that. But what I do believe is that because roughly 50% of patients are men, we need to rectify the gender balance in our profession. 

Diversity and inclusion are a top priority for Nursing & Midwifery. I think our professions provide wonderful opportunities for career development and job satisfaction, and despite all of the inherent challenges that we face, we are also privileged to have rewarding and enriching careers. Currently we also have job security and reasonable pensions to enable us to provide for our families. So let’s stop worrying about the optics and do what we know in our hearts is the right thing to do – shout it from the rooftops – patients need men in Nursing & Midwifery and so do the professions.

Prof. Donna Fitzsimons

In this blog, Alannah Curran, a PhD student with dyslexia, shares her experience of becoming connected using her Dragon.

On reading this title you may be thinking of Game of Thrones with Daenerys Targaryen and her dragons conquering Westeros or the Viking Hiccup training his dragon Toothless for the greater purpose of changing perceptions of dragons. Well, my dragon is not a real one as such, it is a software called Dragon Professional Individuals by Nuance which is a dictation technology that essentially types what you are speaking. But, like Daenerys and Hiccup I am using my own dragon in conquering my own PhD journey with dyslexia and throughout that journey changing perceptions of dyslexia within academia.

So, let me tell you how I came to be where I am today. I am Alannah Curran, a second year PhD student within the School of Nursing and Midwifery here at Queen’s University Belfast and, I am dyslexic! A lot of people ask me when did you first realise you had dyslexia? The answer to this question is, from first entering the education system however, I was not officially diagnosed with dyslexia until I entered Queen’s University as an undergraduate nursing student. Growing up with dyslexia through  the education system was challenging but I always managed to see the funny side, like when I read out ‘orange-ootan’ instead of orangutan and this humour allowed me to develop a coping strategy, giving me  the determination to achieve the grades I needed to enter the undergraduate nursing program within Queen’s University, after two failed interviews may I add. 

When the revolution of social media began in my teenage years, I also had many experiences of miss spelling words on my social media posts. You can imagine how this felt as a teenage girl. A lot of people found it humorous, including myself, however I still struggle writing posts on social media which to this day impacts on my engagement with connected learning in using chat functions on Microsoft teams, group forums, posting on twitter and even writing emails. 

The turning point for me was in disclosing my disability to Queens and being told through my assessment I had dyslexia, so I finally understand why my brain works the way it does and why I find specific tasks such as reading, spelling, recalling information and talking without stumbling on words a challenge.  Student Guidance Centre then put an individual reasonable adjustment plan in place and collaborated with the School of Nursing and Midwifery, so I received the support I needed such as: extra time in examinations, a dyslexic support tutor, adequate consideration given to oral presentations, and access to dyslexic specific software mainly read and write gold, mind view maps and recording devices for lectures. This support allowed me to develop and adapt to academia to reach my potential, graduating as an adult nurse with a first-class honours degree and then completing my masters in advance professional practice with distinction. This brought me to my current status as PhD student where I have learned I read better on blue paper. Yes such a strange concept, but I discovered dyslexics experience a glare of white paper which negatively effects reading, and explained why when reading I would squint at the page regardless of having 20/20 vision. However, the downside of this was (Pre COVID-19), I would mistakenly leave my blue paper in the printer, meaning my PhD colleagues would come along to print important protocol documents on my bright blue paper!. Everyone knew exactly who the culprit was but I like to think I brought a bit of colour to their day. 

But where is my dragon, I can hear you asking! No, I did not emerge from the ashes of a flaming fire holding my dragon like Deanerys. I was introduced to my Dragon in a more conventional, but still exciting, way through the Student Guidance Centre.  

How do you train a Dragon? 

One of the most challenging but entertaining aspects of training was asking the Dragon to get to grips with the Northern Ireland accent. If you are an international faculty member or student or even from another province in the UK or Ireland am sure you will understand the challenges my Dragon faced. My dragon would interpret the word ‘now’ as ‘neagh’ and ‘how’ and ‘high’. Being in its infancy, like a toddler when picking up new words, my Dragon had a tendency to repeat, let’s say, comments of frustration which I had to ensure were not included in documents sent to my supervision team. However, after only a few days of training my Dragon the software adapted to my accent allowing me to talk freely without correction. 

How do I use my Dragon to remain connected in my learning? 

I am using it right now; I have written this entire blog using my Dragon Software. By embracing this technology, I have developed digital capabilities giving me the skills and therefore the confidence to overcome challenges I face day-to-day with my dyslexia in PhD journey. Specifically, I now have the skills to use Dragon software to facilitate me in adequately engaging with connected learning such as, chat functions on Microsoft teams and posting on twitter as I am confident that the dragon software will provide the correct spelling allowing me to overcome my previous experience. I have also embraced my Dragon software to write my systematic literature review and methodology chapter for my PhD.  I am now adapting my systematic literature review for publication. This is not without its challenges, but by collaborating with my supervision team, Student Guidance Centre and my dyslexic support tutor in continuously assessing and reassessing my abilities. 

What are the benefits and changing perceptions?

So what does all this mean? I would like you to take a moment to think about dyslexia as a faculty member, student nurse or indeed your dyslexia yourself… What do you think about dyslexia? Mixing up b’s and d’s?; difficulties reading and spelling?; if indeed you are a dyslexic yourself a lot of people report the feeling of being stupid. How, I want to ask you did you think of many positive attributes of dyslexia during this time? Maybe you did, but most likely you didn’t. Yes, mixing of b’s and d’s and challenges with reading spelling is a part of being a dyslexic but dyslexia is much for than the misconceptions society has of it. We need to move away from thinking of dyslexia negatively and think about the significant cognitive advantages that dyslexics have and identifying those. Dyslexia is a different way of thinking not a disadvantage and empowered dyslexics do amazing things.

People with dyslexia are: dynamic achievers, innovators, creator’s problem solvers, and possess so many skills and attributes to contribute in society, the workplace and indeed Universities. Don’t believe me… well let me tell you a few facts. 40% of self-made millionaires and billionaires are, yes you guessed it, dyslexic. Many of you may be reading this blog on an iphone or an apple Mac, Steve jobs was dyslexic. How many of you drive a car? Henry Ford was said to be dyslexic. There are so many others, Orlando Bloom, Keira Knightley we all know Richard Branson. But my favourite statistic is you know all them insanely intelligent people at NASA, one in two scientists at NASA are dyslexic. 

The cognitive advantages of dyslexia are being viewed as those needed to thrive within the current technological revolution, which COVID-19 has now escalated.  As I have shown, my academic journey with dyslexia has really been about unlocking my potentials as a student. One of the keys to unlocking my potential has been learning to embrace digital technologies like my Dragon and developing my own digital capabilities which has allowed me to gain confidence to overcome challenges. However, we need to think not only about developing digital capability for students with dyslexia but for all student nurses who are the future workforce of the ever-digitalising healthcare system. And indeed, providing opportunities for faculty to be equipped with the digital capabilities provide nursing students with these skills. How do we do this? How do you think this could be done as a student nurse or a member of staff? This thinking has led to my current PhD study: Exploring digital capability within nursing curricula in Northern Ireland; the perceptions of pre-registration nursing students and nurse educators.  I don’t have all the answers and would love to hear what you think! 

If you wish to know more about my PhD study or to register your interest in participating please see links below OR alternatively please email me at 

Nurse educator link to register interest 

Pre-registration Student Nurse link to register interest 

Fo more information on the Student Guidance Centre, please visit

Invisible Threads Are the Strongest Ties: Connecting Us with You by Twitter

In this blog post nursing students Sara Dean, Alex Connolly, Andrena Christie, Gary McCrea, Eddie McArdle and Ryan Cahoon discuss setting up the @NFM1121EBN Twitter page and reflect on its development.

COVID-19 has changed our lives in so many ways but one thing that has not changed is that the evidence-based practice we deliver to our patients is still constantly changing.  This is due to new knowledge, research, regulatory codes of practice and clinical guidelines.  As nursing students on the front-line, there has never been a greater urgency for us to have access to evidence that will help us to work safely, optimise patient experience and protect our own physical/mental health…if only there was a way this information came straight to us!

COVID-19 has made life more challenging for us all.  As nursing students, undertaking an award-winning nursing programme at Queen’s University Belfast (#JustSaying – Student Nursing Times 2020 Nurse Education Provider of the Year), we are sadly not immune to challenges.  But rather than spend our time focusing on challenges, we thought we would try something a little daring.

In September 2020, we launched a dedicated twitter channel for the year one nursing module: Evidence-Based Nursing.  We had already been working with the module coordinator @GaryMitchellRN over the summer months to co-design the new EBN module for year one nursing students.  One of our ‘big ideas’ was to provide something that could help nursing students connect with the latest evidence in real-time AND to provide something that helped nursing students connect with one another, albeit virtually…and so, the @NFM1121EBN twitter page was born.

Our tagline for this student-led account is ‘Connecting Nursing Students to Improve Knowledge & Care’.  We have even got our own hashtag going #QUBEBN.  Twitter is an online social networking service that allows users to send a message (known as a tweet) using 280-characters to each other or their followers.  While everyone can see a tweet, you must be an account holder to reply or share a tweet.  Interested in setting up your own Twitter account?  Check out this simple guide:

We now have 320 followers, and this number has been steadily increasing since we developed this Twitter channel.  Our followers include healthcare professional students, healthcare professionals, researchers, policymakers, patient advocacy groups and healthcare journals.  In the last week, our #QUBEBN has made more than 70,000 impressions on social media, with a potential reach of more than 11,000 unique twitter users.  

We believe this Twitter channel will support nursing students to keep the conversation going after online classes, promote the sharing of new evidence/knowledge amongst users and provide a forum for professional networking between students, their peers and other healthcare professionals interested in evidence-based practice.

But our Twitter channel is not all about evidence-based nursing, if it were the letters E.B.N would probably stand for Everybody is Bored Now… (Shoutout to Zach Mitchell from the EBN Pod; if you know, you know!)  Our channel is also a place for connecting student nurses with other like-minded people and supporting them in their journey.  We make no apologies for lots of GIFs (that is pronounced JIF not GIF), short inspirational quotes or promotion of other learning activities that might be of interest to our audience.  As you will see, we are big reweeters and recently we have been sharing plenty of selfies from our current Sept 20 Cohort – just check out our page!

So, whether you are interested in using the account to access the latest evidence, engage in professional networking or just following the conversation, we think there is something for just about everyone!  So why not take the plunge and set up your own professional account, give us a follow, retweet our content and connect with us all!

Right now, we are like islands in the sea, separate on the surface – but connected in the deep.  (William James 1842-1910).

EBN Student Champions

Sara Dean (@SDeanStN)

Alex Connolly (@AleexConnolly)

Andrena Christie (@AndrenaChristie)

Gary McCrea (@GaryMcCrea)

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The Positive Power of Connections

In March 2020, nursing and midwifery students found their studies interrupted as a result of the Covid pandemic. They were given a choice to opt in to finishing their programme in clinical practice with online classes as required, or to pause their studies. This week Hannah Angus, Eimir Martin, Jenna Doherty and Tina Adams, who decided to pause their studies, reflect on that decision and discuss how the QUB Connections initiative worked to support them.

When the news broke that we were going into lockdown in March due to the Covid 19 pandemic, we all had only five months left of our training to become nurses and midwives. Because of this, the remainder of our nursing and midwifery training would be concluded in clinical practice and whatever classes we had left would be online. There was an “opt in” or “opt out” choice to this arrangement but to some of us there didn’t feel like there really was a choice at all as the option to opt in was not viable due to personal or family commitments or health conditions that would inhibit some of us from going into the clinical area which was deemed too unsafe. 

So whilst there was Zoom call after Zoom call with our lecturers understandably sorting the arrangements of what opting in meant – our classmates entering the unknown and clinical areas during a pandemic, whilst being a part of the meetings we couldn’t help but feeling isolated as the things talked about were nothing to do with us as we couldn’t and wouldn’t be entering the clinical area and didn’t know when we would be either. The whole unknown and uncertainty was extremely hard and unsettling as we couldn’t help but going down the rabbit hole of thinking, when will be we able to re-join practice? Will it be safe? Will we re-join in time to finish the course and graduate with our peers? Will we finish in time to take up the posts we had already interviewed for and been offered jobs for? Although we were at home surrounded by family and connecting to friends and classmates through video calls and texts etc we felt alone. 

As the weeks passed it seemed our classmates were moving on without us and we were stuck at home, alone and feeling worthless as our personal circumstances were stopping us from entering and helping the workforce and society during a global pandemic. After all , one of the reasons why we want to be nurses and midwives is to help people but yet here in a global pandemic when help was needed we had to face the reality – we couldn’t enter the front line to do what we were made to do and it was heart breaking. As the weeks went past there was nothing but a sense of loneliness. We were made aware that when we were spoke to individually that there were other students who were also in the same situation but not knowing who these students were made things that bit harder as that feeling of being alone was still there and we couldn’t support each other because we didn’t know who also had to pause.

A few weeks into being paused on our programme we were invited to join a QUB Connections group for students who were paused on their programme during the pandemic. Whilst initially everyone was nervous it very quickly became a place where everyone could speak honestly, openly and felt safe to share how they were feeling. It really helped to see we weren’t alone, and everyone was feeling the same – alone, isolated, worried, guilty, anxious feeling a sense of loss, feeling left behind and having no control over our current situations. Clare, Deirdre and Monica were fantastic, listened to us, offered support, advice and encouragement and by being there showed they really cared, wanting to help us in whatever way they could. We felt we were no longer alone and there were others out there who cared and knew and understood exactly how we were feeling.

We learnt coping mechanisms from each other and encouraged each other on by setting positive targets/goals to achieve between each meeting. We shared positive stories, sad stories and best of all through our connectedness we had a laugh and felt a sense of camaraderie with each other. The saying goes everything in life happens for a reason and during the worst times in our lives we meet some of the best people, well It is only because of the Covid pandemic did we all have the opportunity to come together, got to know each other and made friends along the way. 

We are extremely thankful to have had the group as it really helped us through the emotional rollercoaster of being paused on our programme during Covid 19 but like riding a rollercoaster it was less scary and unsettling when we had others there supporting us through the bumps and twists and turns. The sense of loneliness, fear, isolation and guilt was all replaced by happiness, togetherness, and a sense of being a part of a team who were full of support and encouragement. 

We were all able to help each other in special ways that no one else would ever understand as they were not in our situation. They were not at home, they were on the frontline fighting for our NHS whilst we were fighting our own battles to better ourselves and support each other’s mental, physical and emotional health. This has then enabled us to become stronger student nurses and midwives that will eventually enter the frontline, finish our courses and do what we love to support the community that we live in. All of this could not have been achieved without the connection group bringing us closer together to fight one battle instead of our own battles alone.

Hannah Angus is student adult nurse, Eimir Martin, Jenna Doherty, Tina Adams are all student midwives. All four are currently finishing their final placements.

CPAD and Connected Learning

In this post Prof. Michael Brown reflects on the challenges to, and opportunities for CPAD in the School of Nursing and Midwifery by moving to a connected learning model.

As most people know, CPD stands for Continuing Professional Development and is the term used to describe the learning activities professionals engage in to develop and enhance their knowledge, skills and abilities.  Evidencing Continuing Professional Development is a requirement of revalidation by the Nursing and Midwifery Council every three years. The evidence required can take different forms which creates exciting and innovative opportunities for nurses and midwives.  CPD activities that often spring to mind include the mandatory elements required by the job, such as Equality and Diversity updates; the list of mandatory updates seems to grow every year.  Other examples of CPD might relate to education and training regarding specific developments regarding new treatments and interventions, necessary to enable nurses and midwives to deliver safe and effective patient care. For colleagues working in higher education, the focus may be on activities such as new technologies to support Connected Learning approaches to delivering education.  

The pandemic has seen a rapid increase in the need to move from ‘traditional’ teaching and learning approaches where we meet face-to-face with students and get to know the individual learner. For us all this is the heart of what motivates us within higher education. The move to Connected Learning brings many challenges and opportunities. It has been challenging to move rapidly to develop new learning materials and resources for on-line delivery with limited time, sometimes leaving the feeling of being a bit under prepared and flying by the seat of our pants. Chocks away!   Chocks away conjures up the image of the start of a journey with a planned destination, yet where the route is less clear.  

The opportunities involve a period of self-reflection on personal approaches to pedagogy per se and approaches to teaching and learning.  From a personal perspective the move to Connected Learning has presented an opportunity to think about what motivates ne as an educator and how I can continue to sustain it during these ‘unprecedented times’ to use a much-used phrase from the BBC.  Having little choice but to adopt new teaching and learning strategies has not been a bad thing. Stressful at times, yes, but not a bad thing.  It is often too easy to adopt a Manjana approach of ‘tomorrow’ as there is always a list of other priorities that need to be met.  Working collaboratively with academic and IT colleagues to share knowledge, skills and ‘know-how’ has been invaluable.  Without sharing newly acquired knowledge and skills many of us would struggle in a rapidly changing higher education environment.  

Recognising the opportunities and the challenges leads me to reflect on the ones presented to our students.  Many are working in health and social care services providing essential care and support to patients and their families while at the same time coping with changing life circumstances and uncertainty. As the School of Nursing and Midwifery lead for Continuing Academic and Professional Development, I have the privilege to lead a team of perfectly formed academics and to work with first rate administrators.  The role gives a clear overview of the education programmes, courses and modules provided. It is a complex picture of academic levels, studied ate different times full-time and part-time. We have a mix of local students undertaking studies to support development and delivery of health and social care service.  Studies which are coupled with professional demands and family commitments.  International students, often with their government’s support choose Queen’s to undertake further study. 

Yet, despite these demands, students have risen to the challenge of adapting to our Connected Learning approach to continue with their studies.  The new journey has been forced upon us all and is not how we would have planned it.  However, while it is clear that there remain challenges to be overcome, there are new opportunities to change our teaching and learning practice for the future, thereby opening the learning opportunities for students of the future.  To quote C.S Lewis who wrote many books including the Chronicles of Narnia, “You can’t go back and change the beginning, but you can start where you are and change the ending.” 

Why not add your thoughts or comments by posting in the comments section below

Promoting a connected learning through developing an online community: The Jelly Baby Tree

In this blog post Alison Smart shares her experiences of adopting the Jelly Baby Tree for online work.

As we have all started to adapt to the (dare I say it) “New Normal” which we all know will be ever evolving. From a profession where people feature very strongly – personal interactions are something I have massively missed during lockdown. The social interactions we all had on a day to day to basis within the MBC is something I took for granted but a key aspect that makes work enjoyable. 

September 2020 are now in their fourth week of our new curriculum and going to university is a time for social interaction; meeting new people, making new friends and spreading your wings. I remember my first day when Susan Carlisle said look to your left and your right and there will be someone in this room who will become a great friend and she was right. I have very fond memories and made some very good friends, as I know we all did at university. This can also be a daunting time, reaching out to people you don’t know, I would think it’s quite daunting to do this in a predominately virtual world. However, our current students have transitioned to a connected learning environment, when the normal pre-class chatter and a bustling MBC is no longer. Virtual Coffee’s, Zoom Quizzes, Break-out rooms, chat functions are the current virtual social life choices that have quickly became staples in our lives. 

This post will discuss the use of the Jelly Baby Tree (JBT) in creating an online community. The JBT is currently being used in Year 1 Professionalism Module. I will reflect on the implementation of the tool to the module and identify how you could use this. This tool has been previously used as an icebreaker and I have used an adapted version that I had previously used in MSc module with leadership whilst undertaking an MSC course.  

Before I get started, I would like you to look at the image below and think about how you are feeling this week in relation to our current journey at SONM and our journey with connected learning. Which Jelly Baby do you identify with? 

Are you a 12 and branching out? Or wick at 6? Relaxing like an 11. I have been nearly all the Jelly babies on the tree but this week I am a 9 and feeling fine. I have had some positive feedback from the year ones and enjoyed face-to-face teaching this week.

Why JBT? 

I had previously used the JBT in an online module at MSC level which looked at leadership and each week we were asked to identify which Jelly Baby we were in relation to our leadership journey. This was an international module and the use of the JBT facilitated a social presence. The selection of this JBT was used to encourage communication within an online context and its use would help to support and develop the year ones. Previous analysis suggested students found that JBT was a valued aspect of the course. Evidence reported “Jelly Baby Tree as the best bit of the course” giving it “human touch” whilst others “come away inspired every time I read someone else’s Jelly baby posting” It was 2014 when I used it so I figured if I still remember it now, then it must have a lasting impact.

How did I use it?

I set up a weekly JBT discussion forum with a single thread. The students were introduced to the Jelly Baby tree during the start of the module and received the directions below. 

Each week, they are asked to reflect and complete a post to where they are feeling on the course and on their journey as a professional. The instructor should do the same in order to “model the way” and connect with students thereby fostering a sense of social presence for themselves as well. In addition to this, myself and other members of the module team have replied to students with their comments with words of encouragement, thus creating a social presence aimed at creating an atmosphere of trust and belonging.

How has it been received? 

I have been positively surprised, as I was unsure despite my positive personal experience in a postgraduate format. I wasn’t too sure how it would fare with Year 1’s who have not met each other but to date we have had over 650 posts in the 4 weeks. Students appear to be engaged with the Jelly Baby Tree and it does appear to foster a community of encouragement. 

As the potential social isolation starts to creep up on us again, with a 4-6-week restrictions imposed. I think it is important to try and encourage social interactions for our new cohort but to help facilitate those existing friendships. I think the JellyBaby tree is a good place to start. I had initially been dubious myself but having had such a positive experience myself, I thought with the move to more of a connected learning approach this was the right fit. I hope you consider the use of the tree for both undergraduate and postgraduate.

Thank-you for taking the time to read this, let’s take time to ensure we help the student’s in this journey and also ourselves to socially connect.

Please post any comments or your experiences on using the JBT online below