Windrush and the NHS – an entwined history

The NHS has depended on the talents of its diverse workforce since its inception in 1948, the same year the passengers of HMT Empire Windrush passengers disembarked at the Port of Tilbury on 22 June. Many of the passengers came to work for the NHS and are part of NHS’s history.

My parents travelled from the British colonies of Jamaica and Barbados, my father arrived in 1957 and my mother 1964 and both had British passports. My parents like many of the Windrush generation moved to the UK in response to the gaps in the British labour market.

My dad first worked for London transport as a bus driver and in his later years, for Vauxhall car factory. My mother aspired to be a nurse and three months after moving to the UK her plans were scuppered when she met my father on the streets of north west London and the rest they say, is history.

My Mother satisfied her desire by becoming a nurses’ aide when our family moved to Aylesbury. She worked for a few years at the Stoke Mandeville Hospital, which as fate would have it, forms part of Buckinghamshire Healthcare NHS Trust, where I currently work.

With no extended family my parents bought their first house in Bedfordshire and worked together to raise my brother, sisters and I. My father worked nights, whilst my mother did days as a cashier at Tesco, eventually becoming one of the few senior black female managers.

They experienced and tolerated racism and exclusion in the pursuit of giving my siblings and I a good life. I was always inspired by their work ethic and caretaking of us. It was important to me to make something of my life and in the process make them both proud.

My parents supported my aspirations to become a nurse and I joined the National Health Service aged 18.  On Monday 30 March 2020, I began my new post as chief nurse at Buckinghamshire Healthcare NHS Trust, becoming one of 4% of nurses from a black and ethnic minority background working at executive level. I am thankful to my parents.

It has often been said that the NHS could not function without its black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) staff, and this is undoubtedly true.

Today, the NHS is the biggest employer of people from a BAME background in Europe – 20.7% of the NHS workforce which represent over 200 nationalities. Many are doctors, nurses, allied health professionals, domestic, catering and porters. Our thanks and gratitude to all of them.

The Windrush generation helped to build the National Health Services and I stand on the shoulders of those nurses who came before me – your legacy is my history I celebrate and thank you.

Karen is the chief nurse at Buckinghamshire Healthcare NHS Trust.

In her 25 years qualified nursing career, Karen has worked in a number of large and complex NHS organisations in London. She holds a diploma along with a BSc (hons) in Nursing and a MSc in advanced practice leadership from Kings College University. She is a graduate from the NHS Leadership Academy Senior Leaders and Nye Bevan programme for aspiring directors.

Karen is a member of the Workforce Race Equality Standard (WRES) strategic advisory group and works with the Prostate Cancer UK, to educate and raise awareness of the disease.

She is also a trustee of the Mary Seacole Trust and leads the diversity in leadership programme and was highly commended by the Nursing Times in 2019 for her work in diversity and inclusion.