Zoe Hilton
Zoe Hilton is a Senior Clinical Research Nurse in the Research and Development Delivery Team at University Hospital Llandough (UHL). Zoe has been involved in numerous clinical breast cancer trials for UHL’s Breast Centre and, throughout the pandemic, played an instrumental role in clinical trials to test drugs to treat COVID-19 in the most unwell patients including the internationally renowned RECOVERY trial. Since 2017, Zoe has volunteered annually in the refugee camps in northern France, administering first aid to those in need. In this piece she reflects on how those experiences have pushed her to be a better, more compassionate leader in her everyday work.

I was introduced to volunteering humanitarian first aid in the refugee camps in northern France back in 2016 when a friend returned from a sabbatical in what was formerly known as the ‘Calais Jungle’. This was a legal refugee and asylum seeker encampment which was a temporary home for up to nearly 10,000 people form all over the world.

The conversations I had at this time stirred something inside me that would not allow me to continue to watch from a distance but instead inspired me to get involved, to share my compassion whilst utilising my nursing skills in what felt like best way possible.

Since 2017, I have volunteered with an organisation called First Aid Support Team (F.A.S.T) every year at least once (sadly missing last year for obvious reasons). The formal Calais Jungle was disbanded in 2016; its inhabitants moved on apparently indiscriminately to other areas in France, the majority of whom were only to return to the port areas at a later date to continue their journey. This has resulted in a number of smaller, illegal camps being created across the area, which are consistently broken up by the French police who use tear gas and batons whilst removing the few belongings and shelter these phenomenally brave and resilient people have. When volunteering in the camps, I would stay there for 3-4 days at a time and my experiences there have opened my eyes, influenced my practice, and changed me as a person in more ways than I could have imagined.

I currently work full-time in The University Hospital of Llandough as a Senior Research Nurse. Cardiff is very multi-cultural with some patients coming from countries where there is political unrest. Volunteering in the illegal refugee camps has changed my perspective of their experiences, expectations and cultures.

The refugees are often treated with hostility and stepping into these inhumane living conditions has allowed me to draw on those conversations and images when seeing similar scared, anxious and sometimes angry patients in clinic back in Cardiff. Refugees have often been let down by the people who are supposed to keep them safe. It is therefore understandable that they may not meet your eye, they may give incorrect personal data and they may not thank you. They have no reason to trust us.

By volunteering for F.A.S.T I’ve gained experience to confidently empathise with educated understanding. I aim to pre-empt the personal, legal and cultural issues that may arise. By doing so, I hope to create a higher standard of care that supports patients and also other members of the team, who may not have had the same experiences or insight.

Each experience has inspired me to do better, to learn more, and develop ways to ensure that our Health Board meets its Equality, Diversity and Inclusion objectives. I am currently undertaking a Compassionate Management course to support this and have just been accepted onto the Climb Wales programme, which is a very exciting opportunity to develop my leadership practice. My next trip is booked for the end of November, I can’t wait to get back out into the field to offer what support I can to the camps’ residents after an unspeakably difficult year and to no doubt see some familiar faces and meet hundreds of others who will, as ever, teach me and continue to add so much more value to my life.

Anyone can volunteer. I work with the First Aid team, but you do not need medical experience to work for Care for Calais and Refugee Community Kitchen. Unfortunately, the current situation is unlikely to change anytime soon and the charities that provide basic humanitarian support rely entirely on volunteers and donations. Below are the details of some of the charities that are currently working in the area. If you would like further information have a look at their websites:

FAST – First Aid Support Team 

Care4Calais | Refugee Crisis Charity