WHEN Debbie Butterworth was 15 years old, she decided how she wanted to spend the rest of her life.
“I was working as a volunteer on an elderly care ward at Rotherham District General Hospital,” she said.
“It was all cleaning up, feeding people and wiping bums – but it didn’t put me off at all.”
Thirty-five years later, Debbie, now aged 48, leads a team of six respiratory nurses based at Manor Top, Sheffield.
“We visit people in their own homes who suffer from respiratory conditions such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease,” she said.
“They are usually problematic patients who don’t know how to manage their condition.”
More than 20,000 people in Sheffield are living with COPD - a chronic, life-threatening lung disease - and around half do not even know they have the condition.
The disease, which is usually caused by smoking or exposure to fumes and dust, damages and narrows the body’s airways, making it harder to get air in and out of the lungs.
COPD is the UK’s biggest killer - and it is three times more prevalent in Sheffield than the national average.
Debbie, a mum-of-three from Crystal Peaks, leads a team dedicated to helping people with COPD, to give them greater independence.
Her team visits patients in their homes, assessing the extent of their condition with specialist equipment such as spirometers, which measure lung capacity.
But the nurses’ roles go a long way beyond simple assessment.
Debbie said: “The people we see might have had their lifestyle restricted for a long time.
“Many of them will have depression. They will be sitting in the house and not know how to get out.
“They are anxious and stressed and they might not understand it. Someone in hospital might have written in their form ‘COPD’ and they might not understand it.”
Many of the people they visit are terminally-ill, with no cure in sight.
“It can go on for years,” Debbie said.
“They might be in a palliative state. People might be fairly ill, having gasping breaths.
“It’s about trying to calm them down and make them more comfortable. We help them with breathing techniques with the help of physiotherapists.
“And we work with the families to teach them about the condition as well.”
The long hours, visits right across the city, and dealing with people who are chronically ill takes its toll.
But 35 years after Debbie started in nursing, she has learned how to cope.
“It’s quite high intensity at times, being a community nurse,” she said.
“We are out there by ourselves and it is hard - but you learn how to deal with it, in this team we have all been nurses so long.
“We help each other along. We discuss the cases - everyone will have a view - and that helps you deal with it.
“We are very close as a team and it’s that bond that helps you get along. Without that it would be very difficult.
Debbie said the worst thing about working in the NHS is the paperwork.
“The repetitive documentation is a strain,” she said. “And the parking problems here at Manor Top are terrible.”
But that is more than made up for by the joy of helping others.
“It’s that satisfaction you get when you can see you have helped someone, when you have really made a difference, it’s wonderful,” she said.
“When you speak to someone, you see they’ve understood the advice. That gives them independence.”
Do you know a NHS worker who deserves recognition? Contact Ben Spencer on 0114 2767676 ext 3103.