Jo Welch had dreamed of being a vet since she was a little girl – so when her teachers told her she wasn’t clever enough, she was crushed.
But now, 35 years on, she’s a successful learning disability nurse and her energy and enthusiasm has never wavered.
She left school at 16 with few career prospects and started volunteering at a day service for people with learning disabilities, a job she loved.
Eventually she went out in search of paid work, landing a position as a secretary for a computer company, which she didn’t enjoy.
But behind the scenes, her mum and sister had a plan. They secretly applied for her to join nursing school to become a learning disability nurse in 1985 and the rest is history.
She started her training at Royal Earlswood Hospital in Redhill, Surrey, in 1985, the same week EastEnders first aired on television.
Even though she’s now Head of Department and Programme Lead for Learning Disability Nursing at the University of Winchester, she admits she still has “imposter syndrome.”
“To this day, I don’t actually believe I got my PIN,” she says.
“I have worked with some amazing people and keep thinking – somewhere, someone is going to tell me it was not really true! Maybe expose me as an imposter?”
Her first job after nurse training was as a staff nurse at the East Surrey Health Authority, working in a rehabilitation unit.
From there, she became acting charge nurse at the East Surrey Health Authority, eventually landing her dream job as a community nurse in Windsor and Maidenhead, followed by a care manager role in Harrow and Brent.
Following this, she worked as a locality manager overseeing the closure of a large institution, before returning to the role of community nurse in Hertfordshire.
“I got into higher education by accident. I never thought I was bright enough to teach at university. Someone asked me if I knew anybody, with my qualifications, who wanted to teach?
“I thought – I could do that.”
She started working as an associate lecturer at Hertfordshire University, and that’s where she found her niche after more than 20 years in practice.
Jo has worked in a number of roles in universities over the years, but started her newest role in Winchester in January 2019.
It’s the first time the university has run a degree in learning disability nursing, which welcomed the first cohort of seven students in September 2019.
“This is my legacy, it’s the culmination of everything I’ve learnt and has bought together in my toolkits,” she says.
But the proudest – and most heart-breaking – moment of her career came over 25 years ago, when she was support a couple with learning disabilities who had just become parents to twins.
“They are still very deep in my heart,” she says.
“The twins had to be removed from their care and it was my role to do it. I’d forged a relationship with the couple, they trusted me.
“This was the toughest time and I learned so much from these individuals making me very humble in the manner in which they conducted themselves. Some elements of the job are just really challenging.”
She hopes that in the future, learning disability nursing will continue to grow in strength.
“After all, we’ve been here for 100 years,” she says.
“However it would be a great world if people were accepted, and we were able to give the same care to all. We should be the difference.
“I don’t think that’s going to happen in my lifetime though, nor maybe in the lifetime of the newest cohort of students. But I do think we make each day a step in the right direction, and it will happen.”
Speaking about what learning disability nursing is like, she said:
“You realise that everybody has their goals. It’s about achieving your potential and being the best version of you possible.
“For some it’s getting to the end of the week, for others it’s to climb a mountain – but some people’s goals are simple, like going for a walk or making a cup of tea.
“It’s the most incredible, different career you could ever imagine. It will take you to places you never knew existed. Diverse beyond all imagination and after nearly 35 years it is different every day.
“I have challenges and opportunities every day I also have fun, laugh and meet amazing individuals – which is a privilege.
“100 years ago, nursing was a vocation. Now it’s a career, and a solid one.”