After Angela Coverdale-Robinson missed the last train back to her home in Cambridge on Christmas Eve, she faced a bleak few days alone, hundreds of miles from her family.
The 81-year-old grandmother resigned herself to spending a solitary Christmas in a hastily booked bed and breakfast in Newcastle upon Tyne, mourning her brother-in-law Alfie, who had died that evening at South Tyneside District Hospital.
But when ward sister Nicola Peat learnt of Angela’s plight, she was having none of it.
The 44-year-old’s nursing team had told her about Angela’s predicament, and she immediately invited the grief-stricken pensioner to spend Christmas with her and her family.
‘I’m coming to get you in the morning and I would love for you to be with us,’ Nicola told Angela over the phone.
So a grateful Angela found herself the impromptu guest of honour on Christmas Day at Nicola’s home in East Boldon, South Tyneside, where she was made welcome by Nicola’s husband David, 48, a teacher, and children Jacob, 16, and Isabella, 12.
‘It could have been so bleak for me, but the kindness shown by Nicola blanketed that,’ says Angela, a former paediatric nurse. ‘Alongside her compassionate nursing and care for Alfie, Nicola showed the true spirit of Christmas.’
Angela first met Nicola two weeks before Christmas in 2019. She had travelled to Newcastle upon Tyne to see Alfie, 82, who was the brother of her late husband, John. Angela sat at Alfie’s bedside every day, until late on the night before Christmas.
‘We are a close family and, even though it was Christmas Eve, I wanted to be with Alfie in his final hours,’ says Angela.
But that evening, at the urging of a doctor, Angela had reluctantly left Alfie to travel home to her children and grandchildren 240 miles away so she could spend Christmas with them.
Upset and distracted — ‘I wasn’t thinking straight’ — she missed the last train home, so decided to return to the hospital to be with Alfie, without knowing how to get there in the wintry dark.
‘I was crying and tired,’ says the grandmother of seven. And then, in a surreal moment, she spotted a man dressed as Father Christmas, much the worse for wear, who pointed her to the right bus stop for the hospital.
‘I was so pleased I did go back, as Alfie died just before midnight,’ she says. ‘ ‘He waited for you to come back,’ whispered a nurse as she comforted me.’
After Alfie’s death, the nurses made Angela a hot drink and a sandwich while her son, Daniel, a 53-year-old businessman who lives in Saffron Walden, Essex, phoned around to find her a B&B to stay in until Boxing Day. But then came Nicola’s invitation.
‘I couldn’t fault the nursing Alfie received from Nicola and her team, and not a day goes by when I don’t think of her kindness, patience and tolerance,’ says Angela. ‘Compassion shines from her and she is a role model for any nurse.’
Retired health visitor Nora Alnes, 100, from East Boldon, couldn’t agree more.
Nora, who started nursing during World War II, met Nicola while in hospital recently with hip problems. ‘Nicola was so kind to me, and when she knew I loved perfume, she gave me a bottle of her favourite Jo Malone scent, which made my day,’ she says.
‘On my 100th birthday in December, Nicola called in to see me after work with flowers and chocolates. She also nursed my sister Margery [who had been a theatre nurse] before her death aged 94 in February. Nicola is very special and brilliant at her job.’
These are not unique examples of her kindness and willingness to go above and beyond the call of duty.
Nicola, who has been a manager on a 42-bed surgical ward for the past 12 years, is known in normal nursing times to do a patient’s washing if they have no family who can do it.
She regularly makes quiches and cakes for patients and staff, and even brings in meals for the younger staff when their parents are away on holiday.
‘Her Thai red curry is fab,’ says staff nurse Abby Carr, 23. ‘She is so inspirational as a role model. We learn so much from her.’
Nicola leads by example. One day recently, after a long shift and having changed out of her full PPE (during the pandemic the ward has been transformed into a Covid intensive care ward), she was heading home when she passed a bay and noticed a patient who was extremely distressed because he could see a fellow patient deteriorating.
She immediately returned to the changing rooms, put on the hot and uncomfortable PPE again and went to comfort him, sitting by his bed for more than an hour.
Nicola, who became a nurse 22 years ago, following in the footsteps of her mother and grandmother, is strikingly modest about her work. ‘Helping patients like this is just part of my job,’ she says.
Angela, who has nominated Nicola for a Daily Mail Health Hero Award, says: ‘I was upset at the prospect of spending Christmas Day apart from my own family, but it was fabulous being with Nicola and her family, who enfolded me in their love at a time of grief. It was a Christmas I will never forget.’
It is people like Nicola who exemplify what the Daily Mail Health Hero Awards are all about — NHS staff quietly getting on with their work but going that extra mile.
We’d like you to nominate your own Health Hero. It could be a nurse or ward sister like Nicola, a porter, a consultant — anyone who you feel deserves recognition.
Seven finalists will be treated to an all-expenses-paid trip to London for an awards ceremony, and the winner will receive a £5,000 holiday. This year, we have introduced two extra awards.
The first is the Mental Health Hero Award, to highlight the unsung work of those who specialise in this often very difficult field. The other is an eBay Health Hero Award, to recognise volunteers who support health professionals working in the NHS.
As Rob Hattrell, the vice president of eBay UK, one of our partners for this year’s awards, explains, this category ‘is dedicated to an incredible individual who has kept us going and smiling when the country ground to a halt and needed it most’.
As a mark of Angela’s gratitude to Nicola, she gave a handwritten copy of a poem, A Nurse’s Prayer, to the ward, where it now has pride of place.
The poem, which was given to Angela in 1958, when she was working at the Royal Papworth Hospital in Cambridgeshire, includes the lines: ‘When the day is done and evening stars, shine through the dark across the sunset bars, when weary quite, I turn to seek my rest, Lord, may I truly know I’ve done my best.’
As former nurses themselves, both Angela and Nora believe Nicola has done her absolute best for those in her care.