Marcelle de Sousa
Marcelle de Sousa has revolutionised healthcare for children and young people in the UK. Her pioneering achievements include setting up the first renal unit specifically for children, at Guys Hospital, and the first multi-disciplinary unit for young people, at University College Hospital London. Throughout her career, she has campaigned to raise awareness of young people's health needs, and of the role of nurses in helping to meet those needs.
Marcelle arrived in London from Sri Lanka in 1971. "I saw a magazine article at the British Council in Colombo, with a picture of a nurse in a pink uniform, surrounded by children," she says. "And that was it!" In fact, her interest in children's nursing ran somewhat deeper than that. Inspired by her grandmother, a nurse and, by Marcelle's account, "a formidable woman", Marcelle was determined to get the best training available. Then, as now, that meant coming to The Hospital for Sick Children at Great Ormond Street.
After qualifying in 1974, Marcelle spent the first years of her career at Guys. A placement at Charing Cross Hospital renal unit triggered her interest in this branch of medicine and, when the opportunity arose to take up a post in the renal unit at Guy's, she seized it. At the time, children were still being dialysed in adult units. "We were really making it up as we went along," Marcelle recalls. "And there was no way we could play with the children or distract them with adult patients being treated alongside."
Marcelle quickly came to realise that what these patients needed was treatment designed specifically for them. When Guy's asked her to help set up a dedicated paediatric haemodialysis unit, she realised she had found her niche. "I loved it," she says. "I feel very proud of what we did there." Today, there are over a dozen such units around the country.
After a break to have her two children, Marcelle found herself back at college, studying for a nursing degree at the RCN Institute. Initially, she admits, she was a somewhat reluctant student. "I thought my job was to make people better," she explains. "I didn't think I needed theoretical learning." However with hindsight, she is prepared to concede that the degree did play a hugely important part in her professional development.
Marcelle's enhanced skills were to stand her in good stead for her next major career challenge – setting up a multi-speciality unit for adolescent patients at University College Hospital. As well as providing high quality care, the unit had its own school, bringing routine and normality to young patients' lives. Patients were also helped to become more independent and take control of their illness, giving them the skills to live as full and happy an adult life as possible.
The response was amazing. "The young people loved it," Marcelle recalls. "Being among their peers, being able to listen to music, it made such a difference to them." Convinced by now that all adolescents had a right to such care, Marcelle did an MA in Child Studies at King's and also took part in the RCN's first ever political leadership programme. "I needed a base from which I could go and campaign for the rights of young people," she says.
And campaign she did. For the next few years, up until her retirement in 2008, Marcelle travelled up and down the country, lecturing, advising on the setting up of new hospitals, and educating clinicians. She worked with the Department of Health, and became chair of the RCN's Adolescent Health Forum. Her efforts have undoubtedly made a difference. Today, many hospitals provide dedicated space for teenagers and clinicians are appointed with specialisms in adolescent health.