Dr April Brown was awarded an MBE for services to the NHS and to nursing in King Charles’s first New Year’s Honours List, announced on 30 December. Since the news broke you may have seen this inspirational lady on local TV and in the local papers – and she was kind enough to sit down with FM’s Deborah Kane for a chat, too. Here’s what she had to say.

DK: April, it’s lovely to meet you. Would you start by introducing yourself?

AB: My name is Dr April Brown. I’ve been living in Fairfield since the end of 2020, and I’m a registered nurse, just starting my 35th year in nursing… that makes me sound really old!

DK: You don’t look old! But take me back to the beginning, what made you want to be a nurse?

AB: I’d always wanted to be a nurse from the age of seven. The only portrayal of nursing I had back then was from watching General Hospital and Angels – so that was all I had to go on. My mum was a mental health nurse, but that’s quite different. I knew that I wanted to be a general nurse, with a uniform, and an upside-down watch!

DK: So you started training in 1989…

AB: I trained at the QEII in Welwyn, the old one, before they knocked it down. And I worked there first, and then moved to Chase Farm in Enfield – I was the first black sister at Chase Farm – and after that I did some work for the Department of Health. I got involved in international recruitment, worked with the Foreign Office and then with some of our embassies and high commissions overseas. I went to the World Health Assembly as part of the UK delegation, shaping international health policy. And I also worked at the National Patient Safety Agency.

DK: Wow – that’s quite some career trajectory! I don’t think it’s at all what most people picture when they think about a career in nursing.

AB: No, but nursing is amazing. It’s just the best job. It’s a real privilege. So I did all of that, and then I came back and got a job as a matron at the Lister because I thought, I just want to be with patients. And after a few different iterations of that role I became an Improvement Director for NHS England.

DK: And you also earned a doctorate – you’re actually a nurse who’s a doctor! There can’t be many of those?

AB: Not that many. But, well, all nurses come out with a degree now. And then, if you speak to sisters and charge nurses, most of them have got masters degrees. Lots of people don’t know that. They’re stepping stones, aren’t they, qualifications – they open more doors, give you more opportunities. So I did the first degree because it felt like that was what was going to be required if I was going to get anywhere, and then I left it a few years and then did the doctorate.

DK: There must have been something that prompted you to do the doctorate?

AB: I think it was when I was working at Chase Farm… I went for a meeting at Middlesex University and someone was saying, I’m just completing my MPhil – and I thought, Ooh, what’s that? I’d quite like to say I’m just completing my MPhil! And then later I was working with a couple of people in the Department of Health who had PhDs, and I thought, Well, maybe I should… sort that out, really. So I did.

DK: You make it sound so easy – but it took seven years of research, part time, while working and also raising a daughter…

AB: Yes. If you speak to any nurse or midwife or registrar, they’re all working and juggling families as well. You just do what’s needed. Generally in the NHS, regardless of uniform, job title, it doesn’t matter, you do what’s needed. I know there’s not that many people around me with doctorates or PhDs, but as a black woman you have to try twice, thrice as hard as anyone else. So that’s why. And to contribute to the body of knowledge, which is giving back to nursing.

DK: And then came the pandemic.

AB: Yes. At the height of the pandemic, from July or August 2020 until April 2021, I worked as interim Chief Nurse and Director for Infection Prevention and Control at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in King’s Lynn – that was wave two, the worst wave.

DK: And you picked up another first while you were there – you were the first black Chief Nurse in the East of England. What did the job involve?

AB: I had to implement all the brand new policies for infection control and vaccination which in the early days were often changing twice in 24 hours. There was a lot of detail from Public Health England – how many minutes you had per patient, what went where… but then all the logistics of how to deliver that had to be worked out locally.

DK: And how did it feel to have achieved that?

AB: I was really proud of the staff who all pulled together to deliver the vaccine. But of course there was quite a bit of vaccine scepticism, so in the back of my mind I thought, Well, we’ve set all this up, but maybe no-one will come. And then the first day – it was about 3pm in late December, you could see the sun setting, the temperature was -4ºC, but in the car park there were these long lines of people queuing… and oh my goodness, people did come, in their thousands and thousands. It was incredible!

DK: So then you moved to Fairfield at the end of 2020. Was that after you left King’s Lynn?

AB: Well actually I was still working at King’s Lynn while I was living in Fairfield, so I moved house in the middle of all of that as well! And then after King’s Lynn I went back to my role in NHS England.

DK: What brought you to live in Fairfield?

AB: I’d been house hunting for a while. I lived near Knebworth, so not far away, but I didn’t really know about Fairfield. I booked in for some house viewings and as I drove in it just felt so safe. My shoulders dropped, and I just thought, This is where I need to be. Then I found out there was a gym on site – because I have to have a gym – and that was it really.

DK: Were you aware of Fairfield when it was a hospital?

AB: No, I wasn’t. But when I told my mum I was moving here, she said, Oh, Fairfield, that rings a bell. And I think she’d brought a patient here from London once, when the hospital was operational.

DK: It’s funny how life sometimes moves in circles! So then, coming to your MBE… in November last year you received – what, a letter? A phonecall?

AB: It was an email. We have two email accounts at work. One we all use a lot, and the other, I don’t look at it very often. So I was clearing out, tidying up, and I saw this email that had been there for a week… and I thought it might have been spam! It said ‘From the Cabinet Office’, and I thought, Yeah, OK! But it was marked urgent, so I opened it up, and at the bottom was the Cabinet Office logo, and I thought, Well, that looks quite official… and then when I opened the attachment, it was a ten-page letter, and I read about half of it before it hit me – and then I thought, It’s saying me! Me! I could hardly breathe. I was crying… It was just a complete shock. It still feels crazy. You don’t go into nursing for awards, you do it because you want to make things better for families and communities.

DK: And you weren’t allowed to tell anyone at all until the list was published on 30 December – so that must have made it feel even more surreal?

AB: Yes, and it was six weeks! It was really difficult having to keep it a secret for that long. They asked me if I wanted to do media and I said I would, because I think it’s really important for nursing to be seen and for me as a black woman to be seen – because if you can’t see it you can’t be it – so I did BBC Look East and ITV Anglia, and I had TV crews coming to the house between Christmas and New Year…

DK: And then after the list came out?

AB: It’s been lovely. I’ve had so many lovely messages from colleagues and friends and family, it’s been a really special time.

DK: April, congratulations on your award and thank you so much for sharing your story with me.

Deborah Kane has lived in Fairfield since 2010 and is a regular contributor to Fairfield Matters.