40 years of learning disability nursing: Debbie's story

Published: 28th June 2023


As we wrap up Learning Disability Week, the final story of the week comes from Debbie Smith, who shares her reflections on working as a learning disability nurse over the past 40 years in the NHS. Debbie is a semi-retired nurse who works two days per week in the Barnet learning disability service.

As part of the NHS 75 campaign, Debbie describes in her own words how the NHS has evolved across her time as a learning disability nurse.


"I began my career as a healthcare professional at Mulberry House hostel for men with learning disabilities in Tottenham. I had intended to complete general nurse training at the time but had not applied. After about a year of service, my manager, Hazel Tait who was the senior nursing officer at the time, encouraged me to pursue training to become a learning disability nurse and I had no idea that learning disability nursing existed until that point.

I commenced my training in November 1983 at Harperbury Hospital in Hertfordshire. Nowadays, nursing courses are undertaken at universities as opposed to within a hospital and nursing students are encouraged to take part in ‘spoke’ placements so that they are able to gain experience and learn from different environments and colleagues.

I qualified in 1986 and have worked in a variety of capacities within the NHS. I've worked as a staff nurse, community nurse and resettlement nurse at Barnet Primary Care Trust and I joined as a secondment as an acute liaison nurse at Chase Farm Hospital before working as a community matron for people with learning disabilities.

Nursing has evolved dramatically over the years in the short time that I have worked as a learning disability nurse. When I first qualified, people with learning disabilities were living in long stay institutions. In the late 80s/90s people started transferring from long stay hospitals to community-based homes. I worked as part of a team in 1994 to locate suitable housing for people with learning disabilities, which included planning their transfer, following up after they were resettled, and handling any issues that developed. We would also make sure that medical professionals were giving their patients the best possible care. This was one of the most enjoyable jobs I have had within the NHS. Following this, I worked as a learning disability matron for Barnet CCG for 10 years before joining CLCH in December 2019.

Working within the NHS for the last 40 years has enabled me to work with some amazing professionals, who I have learnt so much from. Despite the challenges that I've encountered in my career supporting people with learning disabilities, it's been so incredibly rewarding to make a difference in someone's life, and it's also been fun at times. I am proud to be a learning disability nurse and I am thankful to Hazel who nearly 40 years ago set me on the path to the career I have had today.”

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