Fertility fitness is incredibly important says Laura Carter-Penman, Regional Lead Nurse for our Cambridge and Norfolk clinics, talking as part of our series celebrating The International Year of the Nurse and Midwife
When Laura Carter-Penman joined Bourn Hall nearly ten years ago she already had 15 years of general nursing experience under her belt – gained in NHS and private hospitals in Norfolk and Cambridge and across a wide range of disciplines including general surgery, gynaecology and end-of-life care.
Laura began her training to be a nurse in 1993 having taken a gap year after A levels to travel and work in the hospitality industry. “I did initially think about going in to teaching,” she says.
Laura studied at the University of East Anglia whilst doing her on-the-job training in hospitals in Norwich and Kings Lynn as well as doing additional weekend agency work as a healthcare assistant within the community and in care homes.
After qualifying as a nurse Laura rose through the ranks and by 2011 was a Ward Manager at Hinchingbrooke Hospital. It was around this time that she decided she wanted a change.
“My son had just started school and I was working long, unsociable hours,” she says. “I decided to look around for a role which offered me a more attractive work/life balance. I had always had an interest in womens’ health and so when I saw an advert for a role as a Fertility Nurse at Bourn Hall near Cambridge I jumped at the chance.”
Teamwork is key to success for staff and patients
“Looking back now applying for the role at Bourn Hall was the best decision I have ever made and I couldn’t imagine doing anything else now,” says Laura. “Fertility nursing is so rewarding, we get to look after predominantly well people at a particularly vulnerable time and be a part of their journey.”
Laura’s many skillsets from her previous management roles did not go unnoticed at Bourn Hall and she was promoted twice in the space of six years – first to Lead Nurse at Cambridge and then to Regional Lead Nurse for the Cambridge and Norfolk clinics.
“I am really lucky to have a management position where I get to work alongside the team dealing with patients as well as guiding them to ensure that we are providing a service which is topnotch and top quality,” says Laura. “I do a lot of the mandatory staff training and have played a big role in extending the roles of the nursing staff to take on additional tasks such as learning how to do endometrial scratches, HyCoSys and IV sedation for egg collection. Our fertility nurses are intelligent, competent professionals and it has been really nice to be part of their development.”
Two years ago Laura was appointed to the Executive Board of national nursing organisation the Senior Infertility Nurses Group (SING). SING is the largest group for fertility nursing staff to share advice, best practice and receive training to support the NMC’s revalidation requirements, with members from over half of the UK and Ireland’s fertility clinics.
“Being part of the SING community is hugely beneficial as nurses are naturally good team players who want to share best practice,” says Laura. “The membership is drawn from different fertility clinics across the UK and Ireland and we don’t regard ourselves as being in competition with each other. It is incredibly collaborative and we all share best practice. If one clinic is doing something which works really well why would we not want to be part of that? We can all tap in to a wealth of knowledge and that benefits all of our patients.”
The challenges of lockdown and the ‘new normal’
Recent events have brought with them a unprecedented set of challenges, for both Bourn Hall staff and patients, as fertility clinics up and down the country were told they had to close. Laura has worked around-the-clock as part of a small team throughout lockdown dealing with questions from patients and prospective patients anxious to find out when their treatment can resume or start.
“Initially we still had a small number of patients who had already had treatment who were still coming in to the clinics for pregnancy scans as we needed to keep the pressure away from the NHS,” says Laura. “We were dressed in full PPE which is quite impersonal and I would have to explain to patients looking for reassurance during their scan that I was smiling under my mask.”
The reaction from patients at being told that their treatment was being put on hold varied, says Laura. “Some were understandably very angry and saying ‘I cannot believe that you are closing’ and we had to explain that the decision had been taken out of our hands. Imagine being just a week away from egg collection and then being told that everything was on hold? It has been awful for people. Quite a lot of patients on the other hand were also quite relieved that their treatment could not go ahead because they had been feeling quite scared at the prospect of undergoing a procedure during a pandemic.
“I have always responded well to challenge and I believe that is what makes a good nurse. These last few months have definitely pushed that skill to its upmost. I have been lucky to have had the full support of my Bourn Hall colleagues during this time, both from the skeleton team who have worked throughout the lockdown and those who had been furloughed. All of the Bourn Hall family have remained focused on our primary purpose of helping patients to have a family of their own, despite the challenges we have had.”
Now that Bourn Hall’s clinics are open again part of Laura’s job is to ensure that all patients are informed about when their treatment can resume.
For the time being all the Bourn Hall staff and patients are having to adapt to a ‘new normal’.
“We have had to introduce a lot of new measures to protect staff and patients,” says Laura. “Prior to an appointment patients have to fill out a Covid-19 symptoms questionnaire and on arrival they have to wait in their car until we ring them to attend. They then have their temperature checked before going in to the building and we give them a mask to wear. Women having fresh egg collection or a frozen embryo transfer also have to take a Covid-19 swab test prior to treatment and we receive the results within 36 hours.
“Nursing staff now have to wear scrubs and full PPE for scans and blood tests; apron, gloves and either goggles or a mask. We also have to social distance from each other and whereas we would all sit round a big table at breaktimes we cannot do that now. We are not using waiting rooms for patients and these are now being used for staff break rooms so that we can adhere to the two metre rule for patients and for staff.”
Fertility fitness important
The impact of lockdown has been a challenge for everyone but Laura explains that anyone at the beginning of their fertility journey and struggling to conceive – as well as patients who have had their treatment interrupted – can aim to take a few small steps to help them try to stay positive and in control.
“Fertility fitness is incredibly important and that includes eating a good balanced diet,” says Laura. “There are supplements you can take including folic acid and people need to cut down on alcohol and lose weight if applicable. Exercise is important but don’t become a ‘gym bunny’ because that can be counter-productive.
“A positive attitude can help too and I often encourage people to write down five positive things on a card which they can look at and read every morning. It could be that they love their mum and dad or enjoy their garden or a memory of walking along a beach or enjoying an icecream on holiday. When you are struggling with infertility it can be all-consuming and it can be really beneficial to stop and remember the good things too. There is no evidence that positive thinking helps your fertility but I believe that being in a ‘good place’ both physically and mentally can be a winning combination to help your chances.”
Proud of her profession
This year’s unprecedented events have cemented Laura’s pride in her own profession and the amazing work which they are undertaking in hospitals up and down the country.
“This year was earmarked as the International Year of the Nurse and Midwife and it truly has been,” says Laura. “I have been nursing for 27 years, I am very lucky to have had the privilege over that time to have been allowed in to peoples’ lives, to support them in their times of need, to share joy and to hold their hand in the darkest of times. I have never been prouder to be a part of a group of people who care for our nation. I am a nurse and I am thankful.”