Dedicating 40 years to helping disabled athletes has resulted in an honorary doctorate for the British Paralympic Association’s chief nurse.

A passionate healthcare professional and teacher, Austin Thomas has been hailed an inspirational role model for the students of today. His work with Paralympians marks a very special achievement in a career committed to advancing patient care.

In recognition of his selfless commitment to ensuring athletes receive the best nursing care, Austin, who continues to work as an Associate Lecturer at Edge Hill University, has received an honorary doctorate. It was conferred by Chancellor Professor Tanya Byron in a ceremony at the Ormskirk campus on 8th December.

Speaking after the ceremony, he said: “I almost didn’t believe it when I was told I was being given an honorary award, I was so excited. But this is more than just an award for me; it’s about getting recognition for nursing, which I’m over the moon about.”

Austin grew up in a family full of nurses, including his mother, aunties, sister and grandmother. “I was surrounded by nurses throughout my childhood,” he recalls.  “Then when I ended up in hospital with an injury from Judo and saw just how much the nurses did for me, I fell in love with the profession.”

He first qualified as a Nurse in 1974, mainly working within Orthopaedics including Spinal Injuries, as well as Genito-Urinary Medicine. In 1991 he qualified as a Registered Nurse Teacher and in the same year he was appointed a Senior Lecturer at Edge Hill University. He also joined the British Territorial Army Reserve and when he retired in 2009 he had attained the rank of Lieutenant Colonel and served in many roles including the Matron of 208 Field Hospital.

During his career he also got involved with Stoke Mandeville Games, a forerunner of the modern Paralympics.

He said: “In the early days the competitors were often referred to as ‘patients’ rather than ‘athletes’ and they were housed in what can only be called basic accommodation, sleeping sixty to a hut. The equipment supplied to the accompanying medical team was of a similar standard and included mops, buckets, brushes, dusters, teapots and urns.”

In the decades that followed Austin witnessed the changes that took place in the Games first hand.  By 1992 he was Chief Nurse for the British Paralympic squad in Barcelona, a role he again filled at Atlanta in 1996, and Sydney in 2000.

When it was the UK’s turn to host the Games this summer, it was no surprise that Austin was asked to serve as Chief Nurse again for the event. “I love the Paralympic mentality,” he said. “The athletes triumph against great adversity not least travelling hundreds of miles each year to train. To be around such successful people feels good, but to be around people whose lives have been devastated through trauma or disability, and see how they have transformed their lives is amazing. I’m delighted that there has been such a change in the way these athletes are viewed and that they are finally getting the recognition they deserve after all the sweat, tears and determination.”

Austin himself was involved in a near fatal road traffic accident in 2003 that left him with injuries so severe that he was classed as ‘unexpected survivor’ somebody who ‘should not be alive’. In the unaccustomed role of patient, Austin gained insights into good and bad practices in patient care. He spent two-and-a-half years in a wheelchair and a further four years on crutches, giving him an even greater sense of admiration and respect for what he describes as “the Herculean efforts made by some of our Paralympians to achieve world class status”.

He said: “Being on the receiving end of care changed me as a teacher and the way I view the profession. Prior to the accident I focussed more on the scientific side of things but now I tell my students that compassion and caring also matter. A smile costs nothing and listening to the patients is so important, these are essential qualities.

“My advice to anyone entering nursing is that it’s hard work but very rewarding and so you must have a love of people and a desire to want to help people who are in need. It should be seen as a privilege to care for those who are at the lowest point in their lives, not a chore, so don’t come into the profession if your heart and soul isn’t in it.”