Dr. Nola Ishmael, OBE First Black Director of Nursing in London
Nola Ishmael, OBE, is a qualified nurse and health visitor. She was the first black person to become a director of nursing in London and helped shape policy in the Department of Health.
Nola officially retired from the Department of Health in 2003 but is still busy working with health trusts and charities, as well as mentoring people from BME (black and minority ethnic) communities.
She is passionate about improving health services and has a natural ability to organise and question. “I have always had a tendency to challenge people who ask me to do things that I don't consider fair,” says Nola. "I don’t do it in a rude way, but in a matter-of-fact way, without getting emotional. I’ve been gifted with clear thinking and good English, which has helped me over the years.”
Early life and education
Nola was born in Barbados. She attended Black Bess Mixed School and the Community High School in Bridgetown. She left school aged 15 with O levels. In 1963, aged 20 she arrived in England. It was 1963, and she arrived on a grey August day. “It was very exciting,” she says. “I was fascinated by the people and the architecture, but nobody had told me about the smoke coming out of the chimneys. That was strange.”
She trained as a nurse, qualified at the Whittington Hospital, London, and took up a staff nursing post, working in a high-dependency ward. She became a night sister and in 1977 qualified as a health visitor.
Nola has happy memories of her nursing training, where she met students from many countries. She initially studied in Hertfordshire and qualified in London in 1972, after a break to get married and have her son and daughter. Over the next few years, she worked as a health visitor and managed community nursing services and clinics in Southwark, London, before aiming higher in 1987.
“I applied for the job of assistant director of nursing in Greenwich, which was unheard of for a black person. This was the 1980s after all,” she says. “I prepared thoroughly for the interview so I’d be relaxed. I even rehearsed how I would sit.”
Nola now teaches such preparation in her mentoring work. “I want BME individuals not to feel overwhelmed by anything that they’re asked to do at a high level,” she says. “I nurture and grow confidence the way other people grow tomatoes.”
Nola got the job in Greenwich and later became director of nursing. She created policies, re-organised work systems and adapted the nursing service to meet patients’ changing needs. This included training health visitors who could speak the languages of the local community.
“One year, we trained 12 health visitors who between them could speak French and six Asian languages,” Nola says. “That made a big difference because we had people who could communicate with the population in a meaningful way.”
In 1994, Nola joined the Department of Health, advising on policy, and a year later the chief nursing officer asked Nola to become her private secretary. “I said yes because it was a good career opportunity, but also because it was important for BME nurses to see that one of us could crack that glass ceiling,” she says.
The job involved managing offices in Leeds and London, overseeing projects and keeping fully informed of NHS issues. “I remember one Saturday spending all day in my dressing gown, on the phone, trying to get information on something that had happened that day,” says Nola. “You didn’t decide to wait until Monday.”
After a year, Nola moved to other work in the Department of Health, and oversaw the Mary Seacole awards for 10 years. The award gives funds to nurses, health visitors and midwives to improve health services for the BME community. In 2000, Nola was “overawed and very, very grateful” to receive an OBE for her services to nursing.
She feels passionately about sharing her experience and skills with others, especially helping BME individuals to achieve their potential. “The barriers that people think are out in the world are sometimes in their own mind,” she says. “Breaking down these barriers and shifting mindsets is what I aim to do.”
Nola has been aware of racist attitudes from time to time. “Nobody has been overtly rude to me, but I’m not going to say I haven’t seen people look at me as if to say, ‘Who do you think you are?’” she says. "But I can speak up without being rude or losing my dignity. I don’t collude in my own invisibility. I let people know – that might be your perception of me, but it's not mine.”
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