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Army Nursing Officer Talks About her Career in Military Nursing

My name is Captain Nikki O’Donnell and I am a Nursing Officer at the Joint Hospital Group (South East) in Surrey.

I joined the Army in 2012 after a career in sport and the RAF Reserves; through my work in disability sport, I had met service personnel and veterans who had been through life changing injuries but had really positive memories of the medical teams who supported them through rehabilitation and back to independence. It was such an inspiration that I decided to complete my training and become an Army nurse.

After my initial soldier training I completed my BSC(Hon) in Adult Nursing at the Defence School of Health Education in Birmingham. From there, I was posted to the Defence Medical Group (South East) to complete my preceptorship program and consolidate my clinical learning. During this posting I also went on multiple exercises on the RFA Argus with the Navy and RAF, which allowed me to really challenge myself in a tri-service clinical space.

In 2017 I commissioned into the Queen Alexandra’s Royal Army Nursing Corps, following completion of Initial Officer Training at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst.

I was posted to the Defence Medical Rehabilitation Centre (DMRC) at Headley Court as a department 2iC, where I was caring for armed forces personnel with neurological and complex traumatic injuries. I was also given the chance to help in the transition of DMRC to the new facility at Loughborough, meeting the new clinical team and civilian staff and supporting their learning prior to the facility being ready to accept patients.

My role then transitioned to working solely within neurological rehabilitation, the diversity of patients and injuries was a huge learning opportunity to actively support the rehabilitation and reintegration into military life, or transition to civilian life, for each individual and their family.  It was a fantastic experience and a privilege to care for every person.

In 2020 I posted to Joint Hospital Group (South East) and returned to acute medicine, assuming the role of military head of department, supporting the development of newly qualified nurses and empowering the senior nurses to provide clinical leadership. I subsequently moved to the Emergency Department to further develop myself clinically and professionally with the support of specialist trained military nurses.

The COVID-19 pandemic has obviously had a significant impact on the whole NHS, it completely altered the way we worked and delivered care. Within our unit, our relationship with the NHS staff was hugely positive; we truly were one team but just wearing different uniforms.

I was extremely fortunate to have a team who were flexible and adaptable and willing to rise to every change and challenge presented to us. Within this period the more experienced clinicians were relocated to the areas of higher dependency, so our military healthcare assistants really came into their own, they provided a huge amount of clinical experience and a calming presence to a relatively junior team.

Every member of the team really drew on their military training and the values and standards we set. Looking after one another, being brave enough to ask for help and embracing continued learning and development.

Nursing is ultimately a profession where you are able to positively impact the lives of other people on what can potentially be their worst day, providing not only the medical treatment but the holistic support to the patient and their families that they need.

Being an Army nurse adds a different dimension. I need to be able to perform my role in a hospital or primary care setting, but I also need to be adaptable enough to move across a multitude of clinical settings and deploy into field conditions. I could potentially be working in an NHS hospital, a field hospital, on the back of a military vehicle or with the Navy or RAF on one of their platforms.

Nikki is also a rugby union coach and educator. She referees rugby union for the Army, UKAF, RFU and World Rugby. Nikki hopes to be selected to referee at the Women’s Rugby World Cup 2021 in New Zealand.

The diversity of opportunities to be involved with the grassroots game and elite level sport, across the globe are a hugely enjoyable experience. I started refereeing before I finished playing and was able to continue with my refereeing journey with the support of the Army and my chain of command.

For about 7 years I’ve been a volunteer coordinator for Scotty’s Little Soldiers, it started out refereeing the GWR Marathon rugby match at Welford Road (over 24hrs). Then helping to run an invitational 7s side attending multiple events each year in the UK and abroad to raise awareness and funds for the amazing work of the charity.

this included organising and running another GWR (over 28hrs) raising funds for Scotty’s Little Soldiers and School of Hard Knocks as the teams battled it out on the pitch and in the fundraising stakes.