Keeping infection at a distance

Sam Lonnen, 39, is studying for an MSc in infection control at the University of Essex

When I tell people what I do they involuntarily take a step backwards, then they become interested and ask questions. People ask me about MRSA all the time, and yesterday I had two inquiries about bird flu. I'm the community infection control nurse specialist for the Heart of Birmingham Primary Care Trust. Getting the post hinged on my taking this course, which includes a specialist practitioner qualification.

I began nursing in 1987 at Addenbrooke's Hospital in Cambridge, where one of my placements was at an infectious diseases isolation unit. I nursed patients with infections such as HIV, hepatitis B, MRSA and TB. I eventually became ward manager of the unit, but found I had specialised myself into a corner.

In 2002, I relocated to Evesham, to take up a post at Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham as an infection control nurse trainee. It was a bit of a backward step. I went from being in charge of a regional unit and all that involves, to being the most junior member of the team. I wanted to get on with a degree as soon as possible, but there was a pecking order and I had to wait until 2004. When at long last I got the opportunity I chose Essex, which I'm delighted with.

It's a distance-learning course, so it's partly web-based, although there are study days that provide a chance to meet up with other students. I wanted distance learning because I've got two boys under the age of six and I'm already working in a challenging job.

My normal day starts at 5.45am when the boys wake me and I'm at work by 8am, where I check messages, make inspection visits and attend meetings. So the only time I can study is in the evening. I start at 7.30pm when the boys are in bed and often I'm sitting reading for six hours solid on Saturday and Sunday.

You do tend to feel isolated with distance learning, but you have to make the effort to keep in regular contact with your tutor. Initially I would misread questions, or didn't listen properly during study days. I thought I could manage alone and didn't want to ask for help.

My dissertation examines the decontamination of equipment used in the community. This means wheelchairs, frames and prosthetic limbs that are used and returned. Very little decontamination takes place between uses, and people who need a specialist chair have the potential to get an interim chair that might be contaminated with MRSA or bacterium from faecal matter and urine. There is a range of things that can be done involving cleaning or disinfection. My job is to control infection; infection control nurses are the cleanliness police.