Top award for Prof Julia Downing at Panama conference

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Yesterday in Panama City, at the 18th International Conference on Cancer Nursing, Professor Julia Downing became the worthy recipient of the Robert Tiffany Lectureship. 

Commenting on how she felt about being chosen as the recipient of this award, Prof Downing told ehospice, “I felt amazed and humbled when I heard that I had been awarded the lectureship. I still can’t quite believe it. There are so many people in ISNCC who have inspired me, including many previous recipients of the lectureship. I feel honoured to be following in their footsteps.”

Robert Tiffany Lectureship
This lectureship was created to keep alive and honour the memory of Robert Tiffany, founding member and President of the International Society of Nurses in Cancer Care (ISNCC). Robert Tiffany was an inspiration to many nurses around the world and the intention of the named lecture is to honour those who have a similar capacity to inspire cancer nurses of today and of the future.

According to the ISNCC website, the successful recipient of the award needs to be a registered nurse who has the capacity to inspire others towards excellence in cancer care. They will be recognised as a leader in cancer nursing in their own country and also at a regional or international level. Importantly they will be acknowledged as a person capable of delivering an inspirational lecture on a topic relevant to cancer nursing.

The Award was presented at the 18th International Conference on Cancer Nursing presently being held in Panama from the 7th-11th September 2014. The Lecture presented by Prof Downing was entitled Increasing global access to palliative care – extending boundaries. Conference delegates gave Professor Downing a standing ovation at the end of her inspiring lecture. 

The journey to the award
Prof Downing completed her Bachelor of  Nursing degree at the University of Wales College of Medicine. During the final year of her training she had the opportunity to work at the cancer hospital in Cardiff and also to undertake two electives, one at St. Christopher’s Hospice and the other in Zambia with Africa Evangelical Fellowship (AEF). It was these three experiences that ultimately shaped her career. Having graduated from university she moved to London where she spent several years working in cancer and palliative care at Hammersmith Hospital, Charing Cross Hospital, Chelsea and Westminster Hospital and the Royal Marsden Hospital. During this time she also trained in cancer nursing, oncology, palliative care and in education. 

Once qualified she went on to work in cancer care, HIV and palliative care. She studied for a diploma at the Royal Marsden Hospital/ Institute of Cancer Research and then her Masters of Medical Science in Clinical Oncology. 

“Along the way I met many inspiring cancer nurses who helped me develop and encouraged me, and helped me to get to where I am now. Cancer nursing gives you the opportunity to build relationships with patients and their families as you get to know them over time – you share in the ‘joys’ and the ‘sorrows’,” says Prof Downing.

First experience of palliative care
Her first experience of palliative care was in the cancer hospital in Cardiff and then at St. Christopher’s Hospice. Previous to going to St Christopher’s she’d seen how patients on the wards had been moved to single rooms to die and the nurses and doctors had not known how to support them. Whilst at St Christopher’s she was privileged to work with many inspiring people including Dame Cicely Saunders and Dr. Mary Baines. It was here that her passion for palliative care began as she could see the difference that it could make in people’s lives.

Work outside of the UK
Prof Downing has worked extensively in countries outside the United Kingdom.  After working in Zambia during her training she had always harboured the thought that she would one day go back to work in Africa. When she saw a job advertised to set up an education centre at Mildmay in Uganda, she knew that it was the job for her, so in January 2001 she moved out to Uganda for 3 years and ended up stayed for more than 10. 

During this time she was the Director of Education at the Mildmay Centre and also became involved in the overall running of the Centre, where adults and children with HIV were cared for. She was also involved in the development of national policies and guidelines for HIV/AIDS care in Uganda and began to work across the region as a Board member of the Regional AIDS Training Network (RATN)

Whilst at Mildmay she undertook her PhD (at Manchester Metropolitan University) looking at the impact of palliative care training in rural Uganda, and helped to set up the African Palliative Care Association (APCA) of which she was a founding Board member.

Having worked at Mildmay for 5 years she then went to work as the Deputy Executive Director of APCA, where she remained for 4 years. During her time at APCA she was privileged to be involved in helping to develop palliative care in many different African countries and was involved in clinical care, education, research and policy. Through this role she travelled widely across Africa but also internationally in order to share the lessons learnt in the region.

In 2010 she stopped working full time in Uganda and returned to the UK. IN the same year, Dr Anne Merriman and Prof Downing were both appointed as the first Professors in Palliative Care at Makerere University, Kampala and in sub-Saharan Africa (Dr Merriman as the first doctor to be appointed as a professor in palliative care and Prof Downing as the first nurse). Thus although she no longer lives full time in Uganda she still works there and visits 4-5 times a year working at the university and at the National Referral Hospital – Mulago Hospital.

Present affiliations
Since moving back to the UK, she has taken leadership of an European Union (EU) funded project on Developing Palliative Care in Serbia and took up the position of the Director of Education and Research for the International Children’s Palliative Care Network (ICPCN). She is also linked to universities in the UK, being a Visiting Professor at Edge Hill University and the University of South Wales, and an Honorary Research Fellow at the Cicely Saunders Institute at Kings College London.

Asked about her passions, Prof Downing says, “I am passionate about palliative care generally, and in seeing more people around the world get access to quality palliative care, thus I think I am passionate about most of what I do. For example, the work to develop children’s palliative care through ICPCN is particular interesting, and it is exciting to see what can be achieved. We have a good team that we work with, and despite the challenges and not being in the same place, we work well together, and hope that we can continue to make an impact on the development of children’s palliative care.”

Overcoming challenges
Regarding overcoming the challenges that she has faced in her career, she had this to say: “Wherever we work there will be challenges, some big, some small, some faced by us as individuals, some as a team, or group of nurses, but we need to push forward, to step out of our comfort zones and to move on for what we believe in. Many of us have big dreams, seemingly impossible dreams, and yet we push on together to bring those dreams into reality.”

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