Today, we celebrate Nola Ishmael, the first person from a non white background to become a director of nursing in London. She also was a nursing officer in the Department of Health from 1994 to 2003 where she contributed to the development of policies in areas such as public health, inequalities and the Mary Seacole Leadership Award which helps nurses develop their careers into leadership roles.
Nurse Ishamel was born in Barbados in 1943. She came to the UK at the age of 19 to become a nurse. Despite arriving on a grey August day, she was very excited about the new life ahead of her in England. She recalls things being very different to what she was used to and being fascinated by the people and architecture.
She trained and qualified as a nurse at the Whittington Hospital in London where she first took a staff nursing post, then moving onto working as a night sister. In the early days of her career, Nurse Ishmael also recalls experiencing racial discrimination in terms of career progression, with a clear distinction between who was promoted and who wasn’t depending of the colour of their skin. Even if at the time, the word prejudice wasn’t widely used, it was clear that Black nurses were experiencing racial prejudice their White counterparts weren’t. However, despite the lack of promotion opportunities, they were passionate enough about the profession to not give up on a career in nursing because of this. Whenever she experienced racism, she always stood up for herself confidently. According to her, “ nursing requires confidence; confidence to say what is right, to do what is right”.
“Nursing requires confidence; confidence to say what is right, to do what is right” - Nurse Nola Ishmael
In 1977, she qualified as a health visitor and managed community nursing services and clinics in the London borough of Southwark until 1987 when she decided to apply for the job of assistant director of nursing in Greenwich. At the time, it was unheard of for a black person to aim for that type of high level role but she prepared thoroughly for it and got the job. She eventually was appointed Director of Nursing which was not only a breakthrough moment in her career but also for Black nurses. It was an acknowledgement of Black nurses’ hard work and dedication to the NHS. As a Director, she was responsible for setting up new policies, re-arranging work systems to make them more efficient and made nursing services more patient friendly through initiatives such as training health visitors who could speak languages spoken in local communities.
Nurse Ishmael joined the Department of Health in 1994, and was offered a role as the chief nursing officer private secretary a year later. She was keen to take on that role as she believed it was a great opportunity to show other non white nurses that it was possible to “crack that glass ceiling”. As a secretary, she was in charge of managing offices in Leeds and London, as well as looking after healthcare projects and keeping up to date with issues affecting the NHS. A year later, she started overseeing the Mary Seacole awards for the following 10 years.
In addition to her nursing work, nurse Ishmael has been doing a lot of community work, especially through mentoring, to help non white people achieve their full career potential. She believes that “the barriers that people think are out in the world are sometimes in their own mind” and her aim is to be the one “breaking down these barriers and shifting mindsets.” She has also received many accolades for her work in nursing and healthcare including an OBE, The Windrush Award, the European Black Business Woman Award and the Wainwright Trust Award for her work towards facilitating equal opportunities within the NHS.
Nurse Ishamel’s story reminds us that hard work, confidence in what you do and what you believe in can lead to career success, even with the discrimination you will face as a black person. She paved the way for non white nurses aspiring to work at the higher ranks of the NHS at a time when this was not common and continues to inspire new generations of nurses to aim higher no matter what.