International Women’s Day: Meet Haematology Hero Emma Williams

Emma Williams is a Cardiff Haematology Trials Unit Manager, winner of the ‘Supporting Improvement through Research’ Award at the RCN Wales Nurse of the Year Awards (2021), and a long-term supporter of Leukaemia Care. Here, we learn about what inspires Emma and the amazing work she’s doing in the haematology world.

Let’s go back to the beginning, what originally drew you to the nursing sector and more specifically haematology research?

My base ward as a student was on an Ear Nose and Throat ward and I went from knowing nothing about cancer to seeing some of the most difficult cases, with such visible side effects from their disease and treatments. It was here that I knew that I had found my calling. After I qualified, I worked in acute medicine and had a number of patients come in with possible diagnoses of leukaemia. These were moved on very quickly and I was always keen to understand what had happened to them and why and what the urgency was with treating them. I moved from medicine to work on a Haematology and Oncology Day Unit and ward so developed a greater understanding of all cancers and completed my palliative care degree as I was so affected by the terminal cases that I saw previously.

Your determination to make sure patients have every opportunity to take part in potentially life-saving trials has led to the Unit of Haematology Trials (at the University Hospital of Wales) opening over 65 studies in ten disease areas. Could you tell us why this is an important mission for you?

There are so many conditions that sit within haematology and when I initially started working within the speciality, I was shocked with how many different disease types there were and how treatments differed. Haematology treatments differ vastly and therefore a large portfolio of studies to accommodate each main group was essential in being able to provide the best possible care for these patients. Being a tertiary referral centre, it was crucial that these studies were available to the Network and its patients. The implementation of disease-specific research nurses was also imperative to have a deeper knowledge of specific conditions and to be able to offer the patient better continuity and understanding of their condition.

At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, you opened your own study called ‘CAR-T QUOL’ looking at a patient’s quality of life after having CART-T treatment. Where did the inspiration for this study come from?

Throughout my career, there have been key moments spent with patients that have had a significant impact on me. Looking back on these moments, all have been around the quality of life of the patient at a dreadful time in their lives. CART was a new treatment for us in Cardiff and the long-term side effects and quality of life of this patient group had not yet been understood. This treatment and service continued for our patients at the height of the COVID pandemic when they had a real fear that their disease would overcome them. This was compounded by the possibility that COVID may also ruin their chances of having a potentially curative treatment. The patients were facing an unbelievably challenging time and each quality-of-life assessment obtained was capturing their journey, which for me was crucial and needed to be done.

Why do you think it’s important to encourage nurses to lead and be a part of research?

Nurses are hugely resilient and will often sacrifice their needs to ensure that the patients’ needs are met. We have very different conversations with our patients, and we have a dialogue that is very much at the patient’s level of understanding and need. We are always at the forefront of care, and I feel that more of our observations and dialogue with patients desperately need to be captured. Nurse research can add depth to the research experience, bringing with it a different perspective that complements our medical colleagues and the work that they do.

What would you say is the most rewarding part of your work?

To see new drugs being brought into practice is the ultimate aim of many of the trials that I work on and having worked initially as a Myeloma X1 research nurse, to know that Lenalidomide can significantly prolong remission and is used and now approved is a satisfying feeling. I do also get just as much satisfaction in speaking to one of my CART patients and hearing them score the highest they have been on the quality-of-life score because they have been given the news that they are in remission. These moments make it all truly worthwhile

What piece of advice would you give to young girls or women who want to pursue a career in research?

I always wanted to be an artist and had a love of media studies. I never was that good at science and I don’t think the teacher particularly helped as she wasn’t patient. I want people to move away from the notion that you must be gifted academically to understand or work in research. I have recently been invited to give a teaching session to students around research and to demonstrate that I very much have an enjoyable and varied career as a nurse within research that is very much still at the patient’s level.

And finally, your care for blood cancer patients goes beyond your professional life. In your spare time, you have been an active member of the blood cancer community, fundraising for charities including Leukaemia Care. What inspires you to go the extra mile for blood cancer patients?

I have worked in all areas of Oncology and Haematology over the years and though we look after our patients well and they are often experts in their own conditions, outside our world there is not enough understanding or investment into understanding blood cancer. The conditions that we look after are often complex and our trials and their designs are often also complex to reflect that. I think that there is often fear associated with this. There needs to be a greater understanding of the speciality as with knowledge there is understanding, which in turn will break down any fears that there may be. My fundraising is very much an extension of my role as the patient’s advocate, something that is integral as a nurse.

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Fundraise for #TeamLC like Emma!

 Why not take on a skydive for blood cancer patients? If you’re a budding thrill seeker, an adrenaline junkie or simply want to experience something incredible, a charity skydive could be for you.

If you are over the age of 16 and fancy taking part in this amazing challenge, all you need to do choose a date and location that you wish to skydive from and book your place.

Booking fee: £25

Fundraising goal: £440

Book your Skydive here.

 Not an adrenaline junkie? See how else you can get involved here.

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