Celebrating NHS Overseas Workers Day 2022: Wendy’s Story
Wendy Tangen shares her story and her reflections on connection, community and resilience
Today (Friday 4 March) we’re marking NHS Overseas Workers Day to celebrate the invaluable contributions made every day by our international colleagues.
Learning from each other can only improve the care we provide to our diverse communities, and it is vital that we continue to make the most of this opportunity.
Today, we’re hearing from colleagues, who’ve kindly agreed to share their stories and the journeys that led them to join the NHS.
Wendy Tangen is our Clinical Services Inclusion Lead and Chair of our Workforce Race Equality Network.
I was born in Trinidad and am of an Indian Caribbean ethnicity. Trinidad is a small island situated at the top of South America (off the coast of Venezuela), and the weather is hot – the AC is set at 21 degrees and that’s considered cold! The food is a fusion of different cuisines, everyone plays their music loud, and it’s very sociable.
After completing my GCSEs, I was unclear about my career path. All I knew was that I wanted to work with people and improve the outcomes for people in my community. I’d always volunteered and offered support to my community from an early age, forming relationships and getting to know different people.
My nursing journey started when I saw an advert in the Guardian newspaper for mental health nurse training in the UK and I decided to apply. Before doing so, I needed to get my parents on board as mental health was not spoken about openly or recognised as an ailment back then (in the 70s/80s) so I needed to raise awareness of the importance of mental wellbeing as a career and convince my parents to give me permission to travel across the world to be a mental health nurse.
I moved to the UK in October 1991 as a young adult and had never worn so many layers of clothing all at once before! However, I was very excited to begin my journey, and given all my efforts to convince my parents to allow me to travel across the world, I was determined to make it work. My father had a relative in the UK who I met for the first time when I arrived, so I knew I had support if I needed it.
Living in a country that has a diverse population, I was aware of the complexity of belief systems that influenced people’s behaviours and actions but did not fully understand this from a health perspective. However, adjusting to a new way of living was not too difficult as I was grateful to have the opportunity to study as a mental health nurse whilst also working.
I lived in the nurses’ residence during my training with colleagues who were on the same journey as me, and they became my UK family. Today we all remain connected. My room was small and only had a single bed, desk, wardrobe, and a sink – everything else was communal. I was used to a lot more space at home, with fruit trees around our house and the sun always shining. But I got this from the friendships I made – different people were sharing my space and I suddenly gained a sister and eight brothers (my cohort) and their families became my family and vice versa. At the weekends we would queue up to use the payphone to call home, we’d cook and eat together, share stories of our experiences on the wards, and just be there for each other. I remember on my first day on placement, I was on a rehabilitation ward and a patient shouted at me during dinner. I don’t blame her – I was just standing there in the dining room serving no purpose. I apologised and said, “I don’t have a task, how can I help?” She laughed at me, and we both ended up laughing, so I sat down and had a cup of coffee at her table. This became my position in the dining room to this day.
I’ve now spent all my adult life working in the NHS, developing, and growing, and I guess you could say we’ve both aged well together! The NHS is constantly adapting and improving to meet the needs of its people and communities and if I had to describe the NHS in one word, it would be ‘resilience’. We/I work within the NHS to strengthen its resilience. I see myself very much as a part of the NHS and it is therefore my duty to contribute to shaping and improving its function and development, to ensure its service adds value and is meaningful to those who use it.
Throughout the pandemic, this meant leading a team of inclusion coordinators to support our clinical services and wider community to amplify the voices of people from ethnic minority communities who use our mental health services, to ensure they are heard. My focus was also to give colleagues a safe space to reflect on the impact of the pandemic and to connect with each other to offer mutual support.
My journey started in a small community in Trinidad 30 years ago. It brought me to study and work in the NHS, and three decades on, wherever I’ve worked within the NHS, I’ve tried to recreate that community. I believe my Caribbean background and strong values have helped shape my future in the NHS. I’ve become more adaptable, am always ready for change, and embrace new ways of working. I believe it’s relationships that are the catalyst to making the impossible possible, and that’s why days like today are so important. With connections you can grow resources and really make things happen.