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A nurse leader who trained in South Africa before moving to England 20 years ago to kick-start her career has secured one of this country’s most senior nursing jobs.
Sue Tranka has been seconded to NHS England as a deputy chief nursing officer (CNO) from her role as director of nursing at Ashford and St Peter’s Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust.
“It’s a bit of a dream come true for a nurse who has come from another country”
She is picking up part of the portfolio currently held by deputy CNO Professor Mark Radford for six months, while he is on secondment at Health Education England as the national organisation’s chief nurse.
While Professor Radford will continue to cover workforce for NHS England, Ms Tranka will take over the safety and innovation workstreams.
She will work alongside fellow deputy CNOs Hilary Garratt and Susan Aitkenhead under the leadership of England’s CNO Ruth May.
Ms Tranka said landing a job of this level was not on her radar when she first came to the UK back in 1999 with qualifications in general, mental health and community nursing, as well as midwifery.
She told Nursing Times: “It wasn’t even part of my plan then but… my passion for nursing and my passion for all things improvement has not shifted at all since I became a nurse.
“When I joined, it was the furthest thing from my mind. It’s a bit of a dream come true for a nurse who has come from another country and started out here as a D grade to be in this absolutely privileged position leading nursing.”
Beginning in the UK as a critical care nurse at Sunderland Royal Hospital, Ms Tranka moved to Kingston Hospital as an advanced nurse practitioner and then to North Middlesex University NHS Trust as a consultant nurse.
During her time at North Middlesex she did a year-long secondment as head of professional development and clinical practice and became associate director for patient safety in 2014.
She was appointed deputy chief nurse at Buckinghamshire Healthcare NHS Trust in 2015 and took up her current post at Ashford and St Peter’s Hospitals in September 2017.
Ms Tranka, who trained when apartheid and segregation still existed in South Africa, put her success down to her willingness to take on new challenges. She also credited superiors and colleagues who had acted as mentors to her.
“I have had amazing mentors and people along the way who have really seen my talent, my potential and have supported me to have an opportunity at a secondment like this,” she added.
In particular, Ms Tranka paid tribute to NHS nursing leaders Paul Reeves, Carolyn Morrice and Lisa Knight, who she described as being “absolutely instrumental in my career”.
“I think there’s an absolute desire for inclusion and equality”
However, while she said her journey up the NHS ladder had been relatively smooth, Ms Tranka stressed that it had not been void of challenges and had demanded relentless hard work and perseverance.
“It’s not an easy walk in the park but I have worked hard, I have networked, I have kept my important relationships lukewarm through my career, and opportunity has presented itself,” she told Nursing Times.
“I haven’t been afraid. I have just grasped opportunities when most people have said: ‘Are you mad why are going to do that?’ and I’ve said: ‘no, I’m going – it will either work or it won’t’.”
She said that having good mentors and role models was “fundamental” for young nurses coming into the system to help them draw out a career path that was right for them.
“I think it’s absolutely essential to help you to navigate what can be quite a complex landscape in terms of career progression,” she noted.
Ms Tranka, who is of Indian South African descent, said she hoped her appointment would help show other nurses from black and minority ethnic (BME) backgrounds that there were no limits to what they could achieve.
The health service has pledged in recent years to tackle embedded racial inequalities in nursing that have meant that BME nurses are woefully underrepresented in the most senior positions.
As part of this work, NHS England set up the Workforce Race Equality Standard (WRES) in 2015 to help drive forward improvements at organisation-level against a set of equality indicators.
The most recent annual WRES report from 2018 showed that only 3.4% of executive nursing director positions at board level were filled by BME staff, compared to 21.3% in the wider nursing workforce.
Ms Tranka said she believed the tide was starting to turn following the introduction of the WRES and she noted how one of Ms May’s priorities as CNO was addressing racial inequalities in the NHS.
“I think there’s much more of a focus on it,” she said. “I think there’s an absolute desire for inclusion and equality and I think the opportunities are better than it has been in the past.”
However, she recognised that there was much work to be done, noting how there were still only around 10 BME chief nurses at provider level – less than previous years.
While the inclusion agenda is not part of her remit at NHS England, as this is led by deputy CNO Ms Garratt, Ms Tranka said she would do all she could to support the work.
“I will absolutely be supportive and be involved in it because I think it’s important for young BME nurses to note and see that someone of colour can make it to this level,” she added.
Starting in her new role on 3 January, Ms Tranka said the appointment was made all the more special because it had happened within the first-ever International Year of the Nurse and Midwife.
“To be in the team right now, it’s actually quite palpable the energy around the year of the nurse, from Ruth May all the way through – everyone talks about it,” she said.
“I’ve heard it so many times and everyone talks about every piece of work we are doing in the context of the year of the nurse, which is brilliant to hear.”
With nurse vacancies in the NHS remaining at around the 40,000 mark, Ms Tranka recognised that one of the biggest challenges in her national role would be rolling out changes without a full workforce.
She has been replaced at Ashford and St Peter’s during the NHS England secondment by her deputy director of nursing, Andrea Lewis, whose values “really aligned” with her own.
“I’ve got every confidence she will be a brilliant leader there,” said Ms Tranka, who noted how proud she was to see Ms Lewis get the job after having identified her as her successor early on and preparing her for the role.
She believed it was incumbent upon all leaders to recognise and develop talent and make opportunities for those coming up the ranks behind them.
Ms Tranka was one of a group of nurse leaders from BME backgrounds that were featured by Nursing Times last year, as part of special issue on diversity.