Rosie Purves: Staff nurse who fought racism in the NHS

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The Independent Online

For seven years the black staff nurse Rosie Purves was abused by a white mother who did not want a black nurse looking after her child, who had cystic fibrosis.

On one occasion, when Purse was moving the child from its bed, the mother confronted her, "shouting and swearing that I had no right to be there, that black people shouldn't be in hospital." Feeling they should cater for the mother's wishes, Southampton University Hospitals NHS Hospitals Trust, instead of challenging the mother's racist behaviour, moved the child to another ward. The mother continued to leave racist messages and subjected Purves to abuse.

Feeling isolated, Purves became depressed and was off sick for six months. Eventually she decided she had to take a stand. Her complaint was not against the mother, but against the Trust. She felt it should have supported her, that the Trust did not take racism and racial discrimination seriously. The employment tribunal agreed and awarded her £20,000.

Two years before the case, in 2004, she had been given a Local Hero Award through the local paper, the Daily Echo, nominated by parents of the children she nursed. She also won a Best Nurse of the Year award at the hospital. Five hundred colleagues, friends and former and their families attended the funeral mass at the church of St Vincent de Paul, Southampton. "She was a valued and long-serving member of staff who was highly thought of among her colleagues and members of the community," said Judy Gillow, director of nursing at Southampton Hospitals NHS Trust. Her body was flown back to be buried in her native Trinidad.

Purves came to Britain in the 1960s, took her general nurse training at Northampton, then sick children's nursing at Southampton Children's Hospital. For over 40 years she served as a staff nurse in the children's medical ward at Southampton General Hospital until she had a stroke last November and developed ovarian cancer.

"She fought for the children in care," ward sister Penny Eades said. "She brought a child who was on a portable ventilator to London and took her up on the London Eye. She never said, 'Can't do'. She was a hands-on practical nurse." As well as nursing children at Southampton General Hospital, Purves helped at the Cedars School for children with physical and mental disabilities.

Becoming a shop steward for the Transport and General Workers Union (now Unite), Purves had particular concern for Filipino nurses who came to this country on fixed contracts. She felt they were unfairly pressurised.

Passionate about her West Indian heritage, Purves cooked Caribbean meals at international evenings organised in people's houses and the church hall – and demonstrated limbo dancing. A devout Roman Catholic, she was liturgically and socially active in her local church. She involved young people in the liturgy and, with her hobby of embroidering, embroidered clergy vestments. She also befriended people in church, making them welcome, especially those of different nationalities. She and her husband Alan had one child, adopted another and cared for a third.

Rosie Diaz, staff nurse and campaigner against racism: born Trinidad 8 March 1945: shop steward, Transport and General Workers Union; married Alan Purves (one child, one adopted child); died Southampton 28 May 2010.