Learning Disability Nursing pioneer praises UoC for shaping her life and career

Eloise O’Neill is a learning disabilities graduate nurse - and a trailblazer. The first assessment practitioner for vulnerable young people in police custody at Workington, she’s part of the relatively new Criminal Justice Liaison Diversion service in a role she could never have envisaged.

Eloise O'Neill meeting Princess Anne

It hadn’t been an easy decision to sign up to her degree course at University of Cumbria. She’d toyed with business options, but kept coming back to the idea of a career where she could make a real difference.

Eloise had seen how learning disability care systems worked in her teenage years through support given to her young brother, Jonathan, who has Down syndrome and reckoned she had something to give.

Originally from Keswick and now living in Penrith with her husband and baby daughter, Eloise is a self-confessed Cumbrian home bird, who lives, breathes and loves the county which will always be centre of her universe.

“There was never any doubt I would be doing my degree at University of Cumbria, it was just a question of which course,” she explained.

“Originally, I went for business and international law, but withdraw my application and selected business instead, but that wasn’t really me either. I was stabbing in the dark.

“I did the research, found the BSc in learning disabilities nursing and thought, yeah, that’s me. It was a big leap of faith, but I went for it.

“I wouldn’t be where I am today without my degree, or everything that I gained from my time at UoC. It shaped me, made who I am today, gave me the confidence and skills to get out there and help some of society’s most vulnerable people.”

Eloise is about to return to work after nine month’s maternity leave. Looking after baby Macey brought some space to reflect on life and work.

“I’m one of those people who absolutely loves learning, everywhere I go I want to learn. I’m going back to a job I could never have thought possible in my wildest dreams when I started my degree.

”As an NHS assessment practitioner, I’m dealing with vulnerable young people coming into police custody.

“That means I’m working with mental health, drug, alcohol and social issues, homelessness and seeing life in all forms of need. People are often in a bad way, unwell and with little understanding of why they are there. My role is to help them and that’s why I wanted to do the job.

“It can be hard, frustrating and upsetting, but thanks to UoC I have the skills to deal with the issues. It’s rewarding too when you can do something to help. No two days are ever the same and the challenge is constant.”

University to Eloise spelled security, closeness to home, tutors who cared, classes that were small and relevant, friends for life and placements which inspired and fuelled her passion for the care of vulnerable people of all ages.

“It opened my eyes to the world, made me aware of what goes on in health services and showed me what I could do to make a difference. It made me stronger, more confident and knowledgeable.”

Eloise organised two work placements for herself in Australia, one in a day and outreach service in Cairns, the other at an autistic centre in Queensland for three to six year-olds.

“That was particularly interesting,” she explained, “as diagnosis of the condition was made early. Much earlier than here.

“I also got a lot out of my placements in an adult day centre in Whitehaven, children’s respite in Workington and child and adult community services in West Cumbria.”

In fact, it was while working with the children’s learning disability team in Workington that she linked with Carlisle Infirmary’s audiology department to use a special ear piece to help with sensory differences.

That piece of work led to a Cavell Nurses’ Trust scholarship award, presented to Eloise by Princess Anne, in a prestigious London ceremony.

Eloise O'Neill meeting Princess Anne

“I was offered a staff nursing job in a children and adolescent mental health unit in Hertfordshire after graduating,” explained Eloise. “I bottled it in the end and couldn’t accept. I wanted to stay in Cumbria.

“It was UoC’s tutors who once again helped me through the wobble and I ended up doing two days a week as a developmental lecturer for the university and two days community nursing, both in Carlisle.

“The tutors were brilliant, as always and even though I’m now 26, my time at UoC remains an important part of my life.

“I’ve never liked being lost in a crowd. With its small campuses and cohorts and fantastic support, tutors knew you and really cared. It was a completely different learning experience.

“You got the attention and help, you didn’t feel like a small dot in a big room and that meant everything to me.

“Regrets? Absolutely not. I love being where I am today. So many young Cumbrians feel pressure to move away to find what they’re looking for.

“They don’t have to, everything they’re likely to need is right here on their doorstep.  I’m staying put for the rest of my life. I just love everything about it.”

 “My message is pretty simple. If you’re from here, stay and study at UoC. If you’re interested in the care of people with learning disabilities, there can be no better degree course, tutors, campus or support.

“And if you’re not from Cumbria or Lancashire you’d struggle to find a better place to be a student and a way of life you’re likely to love.”

Eloise O'Neill with baby daughter