THE BIG INTERVIEW: Taking nursing to a different level
CHERYL Kelser, 51, is a Great Western Hospital intensive care nurse and an RAF reservist corporal who has served two tours in Afghanistan with 4626 Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron. She lives in Wroughton with husband Ross, who works in security in Iraq, and has a grown-up daughter. Cheryl is preparing for duty at the Royal International Air Tattoo...
ALL nurses have extraordinary stories to tell, but some of Cheryl Kelser’s are more extraordinary than most.
There was the time, for example, when she was in an aircraft that came under Taliban ground fire as it passed over Lashkar Gah.
“The aircraft, to avoid the shooting, dropped. They just drop it and swerve in and out. I felt so sick.
“The first time it happened, I thought I was going to die. However, it was a frequent thing. It got to the point of saying, ‘Oh, here we go again.’ You don’t get complacent – but you know it’s going to happen.”
Then there was the time when she was with a patient in a British Field Ambulance when an IED went off.
“You have to switch on very, very quickly. You’re on the ground. Your drills are to hit the deck, so you do that. Then the alarm goes off. You’ve got your body armour on, you’ve got your helmet.
“You hit the deck, you wait until the sirens go off and it’s all clear, and when it’s safe you drag your casualty out of the ambulance and get them to a safe place, which I had to do. I don’t know where I found the strength.”
Cheryl was in Kandahar from November of 2008 to February of 2009, and there were IED blasts more or less daily.
From May to September of 2011 she was based at Camp Bastion.
“It was a summer tour and activity with the Taliban was at its highest, which brings, sadly, injuries and loss.
“I ended up going to 18 vigils, which is when we have a service for the people who have died. That’s a very sad service to go to.
“I brought home over 725 patients on that tour. I very often did back-to-back flights, which meant I’d be on a C17 flying straight over to the UK, fly into Birmingham, drop off the patient, come back, straight off to Brize and on a flight.
“You just live on a few hours’ sleep.”
There have been many poignant experiences, such as tending a female officer, her leg so badly damaged that it later had to be amputated. The woman apologised for crying out in pain on the flight home.
Cheryl must also tend stricken enemy personnel, and as the Taliban regard women with contempt, she’s been kicked, cursed and spat on by them.
Cheryl, originally from Moredon, was the oldest of four children born to a carpenter father who became director of Tarmac, and a full-time mum.
She left Hreod Burna School at 15. “I didn’t know what I wanted to do. There was no encouragement in those days – it was more like, ‘You will get married and have children’.”
Brief work experience in butchery was followed by work in electronics before a decade with a company making medical equipment, where Cheryl was a quality control inspector and later moved to the accounts department.
The move to nursing didn’t come until 17 years ago, when Cheryl was in her thirties. She made a personal vow to completely change her life by the time she turned 40.
“I got fed up of the nine to five. I just wanted a different challenge, so I joined Swindon and Marlborough Trust at St Margaret’s Hospital when that was up. I’ve been with the trust now for 17 years.
“I joined as a nursing auxiliary on the old fashioned ‘Nightingale’ wards when men and women were separate. I did that for a couple of years and was then approached and asked why didn’t I do my training.
“I never thought I was clever enough to do my training but Swindon and Marlborough Trust sponsored me.
“I chose nursing because I’ve always had a caring nature. I qualified as a bereavement councillor with Cruse back in the 1980s. I loved caring for people and I felt that I had so much more to give than just doing accounts and being on a computer all day. It just got monotonous.”
By 2005, Cheryl was fully qualified, with a degree in adult nursing.
During her training, she’d attended a job fair in London and saw an armed forces stall. One of the professions listed was nursing.
“I wanted to take nursing to a different level, have a different challenge in nursing and at the same time have a look at the military side and just do something different for myself. My daughter had grown up; she’d got married. I had nobody to answer for, so to speak.
“So I made some inquiries. I contacted 4626 Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron, who at that time were at Lyneham. 4626 are the only aeromedical evacuation squadron in the reservists.
“I started my basic training, which is all your military stuff – getting your boots polished up, your uniform spotless and everything having its place. I was shouted at loads of times. I thought, ‘Hang on a minute. What the hell am I doing. Just what am I doing? Forty-three and I’m being shouted at by some young person.’ “But all the things you don’t like, all the lows, come along with the challenges and the highs, and they beat any of the bad times.”
Cheryl is now a nine-year veteran aiming for promotion to sergeant.
There are many differences between nursing civilians and nursing fellow military personnel, such as the graveyard humour in the military. Some of the banter between wounded personnel and their friends would horrify an outsider, but helps to keep spirits up.
In civilian life, she has to condition herself in other ways, too: “Sometimes alarms go off and sometimes noise and bangs, and I want to hit the deck.”
Cheryl turns 52 later this year, but there are older reservists.
“I will carry on doing it for as long as I pass the fitness test and the air force want me,” she said.
“It’s all hard work, it’s all challenging, but I love it.”