Leona Harris Wiki – Leona Harris Biography
- Leona Harris has been a frontline nurse on a Covid ward in Lancashire this year
- But the East Lancashire Hospitals NHS Trust has referred her for investigation
- The Nursing and Midwifery Council (NMC), claim that she is ‘not fit to practise’
After everything she’s been through, if anyone deserves a happy Christmas it is Leona Harris. As a frontline nurse on a Covid ward in Lancashire since the start of the pandemic, she has spent the past year working gruelling 14-hour shifts, tightly swaddled in a stifling gown, mask and visor.
Not that it has always protected her. After months of exposure to the virus, she finally became infected, and was laid up for weeks with pneumonia — and that’s about the only the rest she’s had all year.
For during what precious free time she’s had, Leona — distressed by her patients’ forced isolation — has raised close to £100,000 to buy and distribute iPads to hospitals and care homes so the sick and lonely could communicate with their families over video call.
In some cases, tablets purchased through her efforts gave the dying a final chance to see and speak with loved ones. So it’s hardly surprising that Leona was recently named a finalist for the prestigious Florence Nightingale Nurse of the Year award, while TV presenter Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen introduced her as a ‘Corona hero’ and ‘the angel of the North’ when she was invited to switch on Blackpool’s annual lights festival.
To top it off, last month Leona and her husband, Nick, were invited to be guests at the recording of this year’s Royal Variety Performance. Fortunately for Leona, who was still exhausted after being infected, the show was virtual and she and Nick appeared from their home in Rossendale, Lancashire.
After a year of such unbridled success, you could be forgiven for thinking that Leona will look back on this year as a job well done.
However, it is far more likely that Leona will spend the final weeks of 2020 torturing herself over whether her 24-year career is about to come to a ruinous end.
For in an act that she feels is vindictive, her previous employer, the East Lancashire Hospitals NHS Trust, has referred her for investigation by nursing’s professional watchdog, the Nursing and Midwifery Council (NMC), claiming that she is ‘not fit to practise’.
Her crime? Falling foul of a bureaucratic glitch during an incident in which she saved a patient’s life almost four years ago.
Astonishingly, the Trust referred the case to the NMC at the beginning of March, but the NMC did not inform her until October 29 because it had decided the NHS needed her to work through the first months of the pandemic.
‘This had been a rewarding year, because I helped make a bit of a difference,’ says Leona, 48, the mother of two adult daughters. ‘They considered I was alright to work at the pandemic’s peak, when the pressure was at its highest. Yet now I could be suspended or struck off, and I won’t know the outcome for another two years [due to the inevitable delays in the appeal process]. I’ve wanted to be a nurse since I was four. It’s all I’ve ever wanted to do. But how can I concentrate on my job with this hanging over me?’
The incident that triggered the NMC referral goes back to the early hours of February 23, 2017, when Leona, a sister with ten years’ experience in A&E, was asked to accompany a woman in danger of bleeding out after a miscarriage from the Royal Blackburn hospital to Burnley General, where she was to have surgery.
The drama of the blue-light dash was made all the more intense by the violent storm buffeting the ambulance with gusts that topped 100mph. But Leona was chosen for a simple reason — highly respected and with an unblemished record, she was qualified to give blood transfusions, even in difficult conditions such as this.
As they neared Burnley, Leona noticed that the blood being transfused to the patient was about to run out.
Fortunately, there were two more bags, cross-matched to the patient’s blood type, inside the vehicle. But they were close to their strict ‘use by’ time — they become unusable just a few hours after leaving storage.
If the women’s haemorrhage was to worsen, meaning she would require more blood, the bags would have expired. New ones would have to be located at Burnley then matched — a process that could take an hour. And that delay could be fatal.
‘The colour had drained from her face. When you’ve been doing my job a long time, you know when someone’s not well. You just know,’ Leona says.
And so, with the vehicle lurching from side to side, she changed the transfusion bag. On arrival at Burnley, the patient had to be given yet more blood — but after a successful operation, her haemorrhage was controlled and she returned home the next day.
By any normal measure, such a result would be considered a resounding success. But in this tale of what to Leona and her family looks like bureaucracy and heavy-handedness, that was never going to be the outcome.
For in the rush to get the woman to safety, crucial paperwork — the prescription for the blood — had been left behind in Blackburn.
Leona knew this, and was aware that changing the bag without it meant she was breaking rules.
But, she says: ‘This was a total emergency. My job was to get her from A to B, alive. And I did.’
Her bosses at Blackburn didn’t see it that way, and there followed a long and continuing legal saga.
First, she was investigated by the Trust, and told to stay off work for six months. In August 2018, an internal tribunal ruled that she should be given a written warning — though there was no suggestion she was ‘unfit to practise’.
She appealed this decision but, months later, lost.
Meanwhile, she had also submitted a formal grievance, claiming that treatment amounted to bullying. At the end of 2017, she was told this too had been rejected.
Afterwards, she was told she was welcome to return to work but, if she wished to remain a sister, she would have to do a desk job.
Finally, feeling that she could no longer work with such a cloud over her work, Leona resigned.
And then the messages of support flooded in. On social media, dozens of her colleagues told her that she was a ‘brilliant nurse’; several doctors wrote she was ‘the best I’ve ever worked with’.
Others came to her with stories claiming they too had been bullied at the Trust. At first, Leona wasn’t sure if she could go back to the profession she loved. But the flood of positive messages persuaded her that she could, and she sought a job at her current hospital — Fairfield General in Bury.
As is standard procedure, the Trust there asked for a reference from Blackburn.
Dated March 2018, it was supplied by a senior manager in the same nursing department that has now referred Leona to the NMC, the East Lancs NHS Trust.
It mentioned that she had been ‘required to undertake some development in relation to blood transfusion procedures’, but added: ‘Leona is a capable nurse and her clinical skills and patient care are those appropriate for a band 6 [senior] nurse.’
She was, it added, fully capable of doing the job for which she was being considered, and East Lancs ‘would re-employ Leona in a similar role’ if she were to apply. Again, there was not the slightest hint she might be ‘unfit to practise’.
Leona, desperate to clear her name, took the Trust to an Employment Tribunal, claiming constructive dismissal — where an employee resigns as a result of the employer creating a hostile workplace. After a ten-day hearing last year, a judge ruled against her, but she has lodged an appeal.
This seems to be making headway: there is to be a preliminary hearing in January.
A few weeks after she lodged her appeal, the East Lancs Trust referred her to the NMC. The reason it gave was that at the tribunal hearing, Leona had stated under oath that faced with another case like the patient in the ambulance, she would take the same action.
According to the Trust, this alone meant ‘her fitness to practice [sic] is impaired’ — despite acknowledging: ‘There was no patient harm. The patient was discharged home next day.’
For months, Leona remained blissfully unaware of all this, and threw herself into trying to save Covid patients. It was, she admits, quite tough: ‘I dealt with a lot of poorly patients. But there were positives, too. A lot of sick people got better. Covid has brought the best out of many of us. We all did what we could.’
Few as much as Leona. Before she started her iPad campaign, when there were still critical shortages of PPE, she talked to staff at a school in nearby Haslingden and arranged for its students to start making visors for hospitals.
She also persuaded local firms to donate vast quantities of moisturiser, so that nurses could soothe the cracked, dry hands they suffered from constantly having to wash them.
Then, one day in April, a mother aged 36 who had terminal cancer had to be moved to a hospice and, somehow, lost her phone on the way. With visiting forbidden, she had no means of communicating with her family. Leona mentioned her plight to a neighbour, who gave her an old, cracked iPad: ‘I took it to the hospice. The lady didn’t survive very long. But she was able to talk to her kids again — and say goodbye.’
The next day, the fundraising effort began. Numerous regional media interviews followed, along with appearances on television.
After a couple of months, a high-profile ally joined her campaign — Captain (now Sir) Tom Moore.
It was all going so well until, at the end of October, just as Fairfield hospital was beginning to feel the brunt of the second Covid wave, Leona was told by the NMC that she was being investigated.
‘Why now?’ she and her husband asked, so long after the incident and seven months after East Lancs had made the referral to the NMC.The answer, sent in an email from an NMC official on November 30, is extraordinary: ‘Our executive took the decision in March 2020 (coinciding with the national lockdown) to halt all investigation activity whereby we stopped contacting all frontline healthcare workers, regardless of their role. The purpose was to allow workers to focus on delivering care to patients at a time of national crisis.’
If the NMC felt nurses posed an immediate risk, they would not have been allowed to continue. But, the email said: ‘In the case of Leona, we held no such concerns… and therefore were not required to take action.’
Emma Broadbent, director of professional regulation at the NMC confirmed this in a statement last night, saying: ‘In the early stages of the pandemic, we took the decision not to contact some registered professionals instantly where no immediate risk was identified.
‘This enabled them to focus on the vital work they were doing during what was an incredibly challenging time. We recognise the impact our Fitness to Practise process can have on people and we have a range of support available for them.’
Certainly the prospect of having her career abruptly ended has impacted Leona.
A photo of her taken on the day she got news of this new inquiry speaks for itself. In place of the happy, confident professional who had appeared on live TV to promote her campaign, she is tear-stained and palpably distraught.
And she is not the only one.
In the past week, I have spoken to four other nurses at different hospital trusts, who asked not to be named, who also worked through the pandemic only to be told that they now face claims they are not fit to practise.
One said: ‘They had all this in March, but it’s only now they’re pursuing me. I feel like I’m on trial and, whatever the outcome, I’m not sure I can carry on nursing.’
Another said the news had triggered a full-blown nervous breakdown. ‘I was in A&E right through the first wave, and it was horrible,’ she said. ‘The pressure was just too much. My mental health was already taking a battering — and then came the letter from the NMC.’
Indeed, the NMC recently confirmed that it now has a backlog of 5,724 similar ‘Fitness to Practise’ cases, and is set to spend £1.5million on extra staff and external law firms to process them. Nurses are likely to have to wait until 2022 before their cases are concluded, it admits.
As for Leona, she will not back down: ‘This feels personal — as if they won’t stop until they’ve beaten me into the ground because I had the nerve to stand up to them. But if I go down, I’m going down after a fight. Someone has to be brave. I’ve always said my priority is my patients — and this is one way of showing it.’
Kate Quinn, operational director for human resources and organisational development at East Lancashire Hospitals NHS Trust, says: ‘This has been a long and arduous process for all involved, that concluded at the tribunal, the outcomes of which are in the public domain, and which upheld our decision. This matter is now with the NMC.’