72-years-old Elizabeth Anionwu has published a bestselling biography, been named a Dame by the Queen and won four honorary degrees for her incredible work in nursing. The British nurse wins a lifetime achievement award at the Pride of Britain.
A Nurse Wins Lifetime Achievement Award
She became the first sickle cell and thalassemia expert in Britain in 1979 and 2016 co-led a campaign for a statue of black nurse Mary Seacole – the Jamaican woman who nursed British troops on the battlefront in the Crimean War – at St Thomas’ Hospital.
This year, Dame Elizabeth is given the Pride of Britain Lifetime Achievement Award for her great devotion to nursing.
‘It’s still quite difficult to believe. I was sitting down in my front room when I got the phone call and I did cry a little bit – I was overwhelmed,’ she says.
At the prestigious ceremony, held at Grosvenor House in London, Dame Elizabeth will join Carol Vorderman and walk up on stage to receive her award from American singer Janet Jackson.
‘I always like a little bit of suspense – I’m taking a group of family and friends who are all over the moon, including my daughter Azuka Oforka, and my 11-year-old granddaughter, who is bringing her autograph book.’
Family plays a vital role in Dame Elizabeth’s life, but, born out of marriage to an Irish woman and a Nigerian man, her childhood was embarrassed by racism, torture, and abuse.
Soon after her birth in 1947, she was sent to a Catholic children’s home managed by nuns who were, at times, very cruel indeed.
‘When I wet the bed I had to stand on a chair and hold the wet sheet above my head,’ she said.
Dame Elizabeth spent the first nine years of her life in care and her mother would travel to visit her when she could.
She’d often spend many weeks without communication, but between their duties, Dame Elizabeth and her friends had activities like Irish dancing and piano playing to keep them occupied.
Deeds of Kindness
At the young age of four, little Dame Elizabeth met a kind nun who would encourage her career in nursing.
‘I had itchy, severe eczema, which the nuns would treat with coal tar paste and coat with bandages,’ she reveals
I was happy to meet the kind nun – she would say words like “bottom”, I’d break out giggling, and she’d kindly take the bandage off – I never felt a thing. Later on, I realized she was something called a nurse and I concluded that’s what I needed to be.’
At the age of nine, Dame Elizabeth was taken home by her mom, who had wedded an Englishman. Unhappily, her stepfather was ridiculed by his companions about his daughter’s skin color. He became rude towards her, and once again Dame Elizabeth was sent away.
At 16 she became a school nurse assistant and at 18 began her practice in London, where she gradually started to grow some courage and met some lifetime mates.
Discovery of sickle cell
In the early 70s, Dame Elizabeth became a health visitant in London and had her first confrontation with sickle cell anemia – a painful condition found frequently in African and Caribbean peoples – which at the time was often ignored.
‘I’d never been informed anything about it and felt incapable in front of these folks,’ she explains.
After a short stay in France, just after the political protests of 1968, Dame Elizabeth returned a stronger woman who was more conscious of race differences in Britain and the NHS.
Families did not know how to look after themselves in illness or the signs to look out for, so Dame Elizabeth made efforts, raising awareness of the Sickle Cell Society. It’s then that she became the first sickle cell and thalassemia expert in Britain.
Dame Elizabeth has contributed her life as a nurse and instructor, serving with black and minority populations in London. She has earned a scholarship from the Royal College of Nursing and been named one of the 70 most influential nurses and midwives in the history of the NHS. She said:
‘I called my memoir Mixed Blessings From A Cambridge Union, but if I’d known I’d become a Dame, I’d have called it “Born In Shame, But Became A Dame”.’
It’s been an exceptional year for the honored nurse, and although her mum is no longer in this world, Dame Elizabeth is positive she would be so proud of her Pride of Britain Award.
‘I’m pleased that the audience on the night will hear about sickle cell disease,’ Elizabeth says.