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Belfast nurse with 'passion' for women's healthcare wins nurse of the year

Nicola Bailey is the RCN Nurse of the Year 2021. Picture by Jonathan Porter/PressEye

A BELFAST nurse credited with "revolutionising" women's healthcare and access to abortion services in Northern Ireland has been named UK nurse of the year.

Nicola Bailey (35) scooped the honour on Tuesday evening, just hours after the majority of Stormont parties voted in favour of exclusion zones outside sexual health centres due to the level of abuse women and staff are facing.

Ms Bailey set up the Rose Clinic in the Belfast Trust for early medical abortions shortly after the first lockdown, when Covid restrictions severely restricted women's ability to travel to England for terminations and many were buying unregulated pills on the internet.

Rape and domestic violence victims are among the women she sees as well as vulnerable women whose contraception has failed.

Speaking to The Irish News, the west Belfast woman said the timing of the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) award was significant given the "crazy" levels of harassment she and patients are experiencing.

"I am blown away by this award as were so many great finalists but even before the ceremony started I thought it was an amazing day because the first legal step towards getting exclusion zones set up was announced," she said.

"I believe everybody has a right to their opinion but what you don't have a right to do is stand outside my clinic and harass and intimidate, while promote lies about care.

"It is all about the patients for me and I just want to do my job."

As the first nurse in her family - the care given to her sick grandfather led her to enter the profession - Ms Bailey said she has a "passion" for women's healthcare and reproductive rights.

"Growing up in Northern Ireland there wasn't much sex education around the issue, I wanted to change that," she said.

"Abortion was de-criminalised in 2019 and nothing was set up by our government. The pandemic hit and everything stopped, with many women turning to unregulated care such as buying pills off the internet.

"We got the go-ahead last April from the Chief Medical Officer to set up the Early Medical Abortion service.

"All my other nurses were redeployed so I was the only one left to set up the service, source the controlled drugs, get the paperwork and framework as unfortunately nothing was put in place.

"From a nursing point of view I made sure we worked within the regulatory guidelines and my code of conduct. We set up the clinic within two to three days and I was running the contraceptive service alongside it.

"We had very few protests at first. Once restrictions were lifted, it's now every single day with protestors either chasing women down the street, opening people's bags and throwing leaflets in or shouting at us in the foyer."

Five of the RCN award winners were from Northern Ireland, including a posthumous honour for the late Paul Murray, who was based at the Causeway Hospital in Coleraine where he cared for terminally ill cancer patients

In one case, he organised a helicopter to take a man to Scotland so he could die at home with his family.

Ms Bailey was nominated by sexual health clinical lead Siobhan Kirk who described her as "the most committed and compassionate nurse I have ever worked with".

"She overcomes every challenge to ensure her patients get what they need, including a challenging political situation and daily protests outside her clinic," she said.

"These services have revolutionised women’s healthcare in Northern Ireland and this award recognises Ms Bailey’s role in that."

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