Ruth Hulbert has worked in research for almost 30 years – but her career path could have looked very different.
She only applied for a research job on a whim, while waiting to hear back from a different hospital about a position as a midwife.
And now, as lead research nurse for East Kent Hospitals, she is delighted with how things worked out.
She said: “I absolutely love research – the autonomy of the role, the unique skills you are able to develop and the meticulousness that you need to deal with the data.
“The fact that I am contributing in a small way to improving treatments or how we do things is so rewarding and a real privilege.”
Ruth qualified as a nurse in 1987 and spent five years working on medical wards and in critical care, before retraining as a midwife.
But research is now her passion.
She said: “There are some great examples of things that are relatively simple making a real difference.
“Sometimes it is being able to give someone tablets rather than an injection – it’s about helping people to live better, and not always about finding a cure.
“However, some of the drugs we were trialling when I first started working in research are now widely used.
“I saw them early in development and now they are part of everyday treatment. It is hugely rewarding to have played a very tiny part in that.”
Research is not always about ground-breaking drugs; it also helps to change practice, and improve quality and safety or the quality of life for our patients.
Research activity in EKHUFT has grown considerably over recent years, in terms of volume but also in terms of the breadth of research – the Trust is now active in 28 out of 30 disease areas.
Ruth’s role involves overseeing the research teams across the Trust, including research nurses, practitioners and admin staff who support clinical teams to deliver these important research studies.
She said: “Having a really vibrant research culture can help attract a higher calibre of staff, and it’s also fantastic for our patients to be able to offer them the chance to take part in research.
“We find they are nearly always very keen to help, even if they don’t get a direct benefit themselves.
“Sometimes it involves testing new treatments, which they wouldn’t otherwise be offered. At other times it is observing the impact of their disease on their lives, but they always feel they are doing something positive for the future.
“I am amazed by the patients who have no treatment options left and to whom we can’t offer anything more, who are still keen to take part and improve things for the future. It really is humbling and an absolute privilege to be involved.”
Throughout the coronavirus pandemic, the research team at East Kent Hospitals has been entirely focussed on studies looking for treatments or cures.
It has meant temporarily pausing other work – around 170 existing studies – to allow staff to concentrate on COVID-19.
Ruth said: “Research undoubtedly saves lives, which applies at this moment in time more than ever.
“Throughout the current coronavirus pandemic, urgent research has had to be carried out to enable evidence to be gathered to inform national policy and develop new treatments, diagnostics and vaccines to beat this new disease.
“The whole team effectively dropped everything and pulled together to make sure this happened and, thanks to the ‘can-do’ attitude of the research staff and the fantastic support we received from the support departments and clinical teams, we were able to successfully open a variety of COVID-19 studies in EKHUFT within a matter of days.”
Staff volunteered to help by working in different teams and on different sites, with one person even delaying retirement by three months.
Ruth found herself back on the front line recruiting patients to the RECOVERY clinical trial.
She said: “This was a daunting prospect for me, not having worked in a patient-facing role for many years.
“Along with my colleagues, I had to identify suitable patients on the very busy wards and the patients themselves were often very sick and frightened. Explaining the trial in detail in these circumstances, and whilst wearing full PPE was extremely challenging, but it was so important to find out more about the treatments being tested.
“Many patients agreed to take part and yet again I was in awe of their willingness to help.”
Evidence quickly emerged about the effectiveness of the various treatments being trialled, and researchers were able to demonstrate the Dexamethasone, a widely used steroid, dramatically improved survival rates in COVID-19 patients in hospital who needed oxygen or ventilation.
Ruth said: “This was fantastic news and it was amazing to see how quickly evidence can be generated and applied so that treatment of a previously unknown virus literally changed overnight!
"I have never seen this happen at such pace and scale and I am so excited to see what else can be done to beat COVID-19 through research in the weeks and months ahead. I feel immensely proud to be part of something so important and to work with such dedicated and supportive colleagues."