Nuala Stuart, Nurse of the Year: It was so frightening to see young people coming into ICU who had contracted Covid-19

Gail Bell asks experts and people in the public eye what keeps them going. This week: Nuala Stuart, Deputy Sister in the Regional Intensive Care Unit at the Royal Victoria Hospital, Belfast, and 2022 Nurse of the Year at the inaugural Northern Ireland Health and Social Care Awards

Gail Bell

Up and at it - what is your morning routine?

My morning routine varies. I work nights so three mornings a week I come home from work and get straight into my bed. On my days off, I am an early riser and get my three kids, Molly (10), Sean (8) and Roisin (6), to school and then I will have a busy day doing my groceries or tidying up the house until my first school pick-up.


What might you eat in a typical working day for...Breakfast?

Usually cereal or toast.


With such a busy and demanding job, sometimes I don't bother with lunch, but other times I might have a quick sandwich 'on the hop'.

Evening meal?

My slow cooker is my best friend, especially on days when I am on duty that night. My favourites include curry, chilli and stew. When I'm not working, I try my best to make healthy dinners – especially ones that the whole family can eat together.


Is nutrition important to you – do you take health supplements?

As a nurse, nutrition is very important to me. I actually don't take health supplements, but I should. I like to think I am getting everything my body needs from eating healthily and drinking plenty of water.


Ever been on a diet – if so, how did it go?

I'm on and off diets all the time. I find it difficult when working nights because I find I'm hungry at the wrong times and crave the wrong foods. I need to go on another diet ahead of my summer holiday. I am always mindful of being healthy, though, so I always try to eat well, making conscious decisions about the meals I have and taking regular exercise.


Weekend treat?

My weekend treat would be a takeaway with my family – my favourite is Chinese or Indian food.


How do you keep physically and mentally fit?

I go for walks with my eldest daughter on my nights off - I like to do this for one-on-one time with her. It's a great way to keep mentally fit and switch off from work. I work long hours in a pressurised environment and find the power of fresh air should not be underrated.


Best tip for everyday fitness?

I try to healthy meal prep when I can, but when my three kids want three different dinners, this can be difficult. I try my best to get them to eat plenty of fruit and vegetables and by getting ahead at the start of the week with my shopping list and planning our meals – not only are we eating better, but there is less food waste.


Were you a fan of schools sports/PE or do you have a memory from those days that you would rather forget?

I loved sports at school. I was on the school netball and camogie teams.


Teetotal or tipple?

Always a tipple - anyone who knows me, knows I love a Pinot...


Stairs or lift?

Hmm, depends on the time of day...


What book are you currently reading?

I'm ashamed to say, I don't read often - I'm more of a 'good TV series' type of girl.


Best Netflix?

Ozark or Derry Girls – I really enjoyed the new series and can't believe it was the final one.


Most surprising thing you've learned about yourself over the pandemic?

I'm a lot more headstrong than I ever thought I was. While working through the pandemic, I found the best attitude was just to get in and get it done. Complaining or feeling sorry for yourself doesn't help your mental state, so staying strong and focused was important for me.


Any new skills or hobbies?

I did a lot of gardening through lockdown which I loved – who knew I had green fingers? I'm looking forward to the summer we can spend more time enjoying and making the most of the garden - and all my hard work.


How do you relax?

Family time is how I wind down – there is nothing better. We enjoy going for day trips, somewhere nice for brunch, beach walks – anything, really, that lets us spend quality time together.


What are your goals for 2022?

To say 'Yes' to more nights out. I really missed socialising during Covid restrictions. My colleagues and I had a fantastic night out recently at the NI Health & Social Care Awards and I was over the moon to be named 'Nurse of the Year'. It was a fabulous night of celebration and recognition for the whole sector after what have been a very challenging few years.


What time do you get to bed and do you think you get enough sleep?

On nights off, I go to bed around 11pm. I don't think any night shift worker gets enough sleep, but I could nap anywhere, anytime. My husband, Anthony, says I have a gift – I close my eyes and can be sleeping in five seconds if I want to.


Biggest gripe?

People who are rude. It's easier to be a nice person than it is to be rude or ignorant. I just don't understand it. A smile and a bit of patience can go a long way for some people.


Have your priorities in life or perspectives changed?

My husband and my three kids are number one and always will be. I realised the importance of socialising when we couldn't – I really missed my friends. Thank goodness I always had my amazing friends in work to keep me going. We truly are like an extended family - an extension of what we all have at home.


Has coronavirus changed your attitude towards your own mortality?

Absolutely. It was so frightening to see young people coming into ICU who had contracted the virus with no past medical history and who were otherwise fit and healthy. What some families had to go through was horrific. It's so important to live life to the full with the right people.

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