Bex Lawton

The ‘Letby effect’ on this paediatric nurse

Bex is a paediatric nurse, author, and CMF's Associate Head of Nurses & Midwives.
The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of CMF.

Firstly, let me say that I cannot even begin to imagine the grief the families involved in this case must have gone through these last eight years and are still going through. The atrocities committed by Lucy Letby are chilling and deeply distressing. Honestly, it doesn’t seem enough to say that my ‘thoughts and prayers’ are with them, as that phrase often sounds trite coming from the mouths of politicians. And the truth is that I’m struggling to find the words to pray in the face of this, but find reassurance in Romans 8:26, ‘In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans’. So, I trust that my tears are wordless prayers, joining our God’s low guttural groans.

I also need to say that, although I had a placement on a special care baby unit (SCBU) during my children’s nursing degree, I’m sure this case is having a profound impact on neonatal nurses countrywide, far greater than my own experience. In short, I am not writing this as one who has suffered much, if at all. But since this case has sent shockwaves around the country, I am merely reflecting honestly on how it has felt for those waves to crash down in my quiet corner of paediatric nursing. I definitely don’t have all the answers, but God is kindly helping me to process some of my feelings about the case. And rather than wait for a more polished ‘perfect’ response, here’s where God’s got me to so far in its raw form. I pray it encourages you, where you’re at too.

At the end of August, my CMF inbox was full of ‘subject: Lucy Letby case’ or variants of, as our team discussed what our response should be to the court’s verdict and how we can support our members. ‘Is anyone available to do a radio interview at 9 am tomorrow?’ ‘I’ve made the edits on the blog, so it’s ready to go live’. But I have a confession. Seeing her name so repeatedly on my computer screen brought out such a strong reaction in me. I was angry, livid even. Never has there been such an incentive for me to get through my emails. Reply and archive. Reply and delete. Archive. Delete. Delete. I don’t think I’ve ever been so productive and responsive to mail. Before long, she’s gone, and I start to feel my anger subside again for now.

I don’t consider myself to be a particularly angry person, so where did it come from? Maybe it started when every time I heard her being referred to as ‘nurse’, I could feel myself recoiling. ‘You mean FORMER paediatric nurse’ I would shout at the car radio during the news report, to my kids’ dismay. Because she’s not anymore. I know that’s obvious, but I realise I feel strongly that she shouldn’t be able to call herself a nurse anymore. And I suppose, I don’t want to, or more, I can’t think of her as one of us. My brain can’t get itself around the idea of a colleague, someone you trust and admire, someone you work so closely alongside for long twelve-hour shifts, multiple days a week doing the things she did. Repeatedly. I am proud to be a nurse. I was proud before the pandemic hit, and the rest of the country got to see what I already knew. I was proud that nurses work tirelessly and sacrificially to care for their patients and their families. They go above and beyond. We are the backbone of the NHS. No, Lucy Letby doesn’t belong to the body of men and women that I hold with such high esteem.

But then, slowly, I realised how much I struggled to use her name. Even when writing it above, I still feel a twinge of pain. I found myself using ‘the defendant’ where I could as if she didn’t deserve to be named. I hate that Lucy Letby’s crimes stemmed from a ‘persistent desire for drama and attention’ (as Baby C’s mother put it in her impact statement), and here she was getting more of my attention. But I felt myself on a slippery slope. First, take her profession. Secondly, her name. When would she become a ‘monster’, or an ‘it’ instead of a ‘her’? I felt God intervene. He is so kind and merciful, isn’t he? I know that I was starting to dehumanise her, and he was gently convicting me of that.

A flurry of messages comes through on our ward’s WhatsApp group.

‘Feeling very affected by the nurse Lucy Letby killing seven or more children.’

‘Can hardly bear to read it.’

‘It’s unimaginable. Those poor families. I wonder how her colleagues must feel too?’

Then on every shift, someone mentions the case.

‘I didn’t sleep last night thinking about it.’

‘Have you noticed parents asking you more questions about what you’re doing?’

‘I know I am overly explaining myself, but I can’t help it’.

I found myself thinking about Lucy Letby’s victims every time I give an intravenous medication. Every time I used an enteral feeding tube. Injecting in fluid, or syringing in feed. I became acutely aware of how vulnerable my patients are, and the power I have as a healthcare professional. It was terrifying. Why did I feel like I did when I first got my pin as a newly qualified nurse? When I think about it too much, the responsibility for my patient’s lives feels overwhelming. I found myself double and triple-checking everything I did, and I noticed my colleagues doing the same. We’d become anxious about making a mistake and causing harm by accident. But therein lies the difference. Most nurses are vigilant and thorough. It’s in our code of conduct to practice safely and to stay competent, with ongoing professional development and training. This case wasn’t about a nurse who made mistakes. She deliberately caused harm to her patients. So now I refuse to let her actions make me question my competence. I’ve been working as a paediatric nurse for 18 years now. Why should I let my confidence be knocked by the actions of one deeply disturbed individual? Can I encourage you to talk openly with your colleagues about how we’re feeling, they might be feeling it too. Remember, this is what we’re best at. We support and encourage one another, whilst doing a tremendously difficult job. I try and change the tide of conversation with, ‘Gosh, you’re good at what you do.’ ‘I loved the way you handled that’.

If you are in need of extra support from us, please do get in touch with our CMF Wellbeing Team. It’s what they’re here for, and they’d be only too happy to listen and pray with you. I for one will continue to pray for peace as I go onto my shifts for myself and as well as my colleagues. I’m asking God to help me practice peace as well, as I know that it comes from him, but there’s some responsibility on me to live wisely too. I realise that there’s a line for me between healthy and unhealthy interest in the details of the case. So, I’ve put boundaries on how much I will read, watch, and listen to about it, and I’m careful not to think about it late at night as I try and help my mind switch off before bed. May God lead you too in practising peace, and I pray that ‘…the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus’ (Philippians 4:7).




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