When it comes to career paths, Rachel Leavis has certainly chosen a challenging path to find the job that perfectly suits her skills and personality.
Next year marks 20 years since she left the Army, where she served in the Royal Veterinary Corps and looked after armed explosives detection dogs in war zones such as Kosovo and Bosnia.
It was her job to ensure that the dogs were fully prepared for this dangerous work alongside their heroic human handlers.
In stark contrast, Rachel today uses her skills and experience back home in the peaceful market town of Darlington. Their care is no longer focused on the dogs of war, but on helping people manage their health problems as part of a ground-breaking initiative aimed at reducing the burden on primary care in the NHS.
Instead of making a difference in the lives of people in conflict areas abroad, she works as a health and wellbeing coach at Primary Healthcare Darlington, making a difference in the community where she grew up as a child.
“I love coming to work every day because I know I will be part of a team that helps others,” she smiles.
Everyone knows that the NHS is under enormous strain and a growing population inevitably puts increased pressure on staff every day. And the creation of health and wellbeing coaches like Rachel is part of a nationwide trial launched in January to create more capacity.
The idea is to teach people to manage their relatively minor health problems themselves so that they have the skills and confidence to avoid visiting GPs or accident and emergency departments.
“It’s early days but the signs are really positive,” says Rachel, who leads an initial four-strong team in Darlington.
She was born in Peterborough but grew up in Darlington as far as she can remember. Her parents, Danny and Mo Klein, served in the RAF and were posted to the North East when Rachel was a baby.
Immediately after leaving school in 1996, Rachel pursued her love of animals and became a veterinary nurse before joining the Royal Veterinary Corps two years later.
“I was young and it was an adventure because I got to see the world,” she says.
In addition to Kosovo and Bosnia, she also spent time in Cyprus, Kenya and Germany, where she was living when she left the army in 2004. Before that, she was a youth worker for the Army Welfare Service in Germany for several years. Her passion for staying fit gave her career a new direction.
“I got really fit, lost a lot of weight and decided I wanted to take it to another level, so I qualified as a personal trainer,” she recalls.
After giving birth to twins in 2008, she moved back to the UK and worked as a personal trainer in gyms in Melton Mowbray.
Six years later she received an offer to manage the new Elite Gym in Stockton and returned to the North East.
Seven years later, she found the opportunity to play a key role in a new NHS initiative irresistible and moved to Primary Healthcare Darlington as Health and Wellbeing Coach Lead.
She leads a team including Caroline Nicholson, Rhys Todd and Peter Bell and since the service launched in January, more than 350 people have been helped, with 143 currently registered.
In six to 12 in-person sessions, typically lasting between 30 and 45 minutes, team members determine the best way to help people manage conditions that include asthma, diabetes, obesity, coronary heart disease, joint pain and mental illness can health.
Assessments are carried out at the start and end of sessions and nationally, 40 per cent of participants have improved their health through supported self-management, resulting in 18 per cent fewer visits to GP practices.
“Often people go to their GP or hospital because they lack confidence,” explains Rachel.
“Our job is to build that confidence and skills so they feel comfortable dealing with their problems at home. If we can do this we know we are easing the pressure on the NHS.”
And the initiative is already having a significant impact. Of the clients the team worked with in the last month, 32 percent reported a reduction in their feelings of anxiety and depression.
The health and wellbeing coaches work closely with an 11-strong social prescribing team already set up to direct people to the right services in the community.
One of the highlights of the first year for Rachel was supporting a teenage girl who was living alone and suffering from isolation issues.
“She didn’t want to go out and wore headphones all the time. At our first meeting, we met outside because of her social anxiety, but at the end of the intervention she came in without headphones and was wearing a big smile.
“She had gained so much more confidence and I was so proud of how far she had come. That’s what makes the whole thing worthwhile, when you see those aha moments.”
“It’s about giving people time and space and an ear to listen. We don’t dictate to anyone.”
The service is funded by the government through the Additional Roles Reimbursement Scheme (ARRS) and case numbers are increasing as GPs become more aware of the service.
Ethna Parker, operations manager for Living Well Services in Darlington, has no doubt it is money well spent.
“The feedback from patients was incredible. For many of them it was life changing,” says Ethna.
“We are blessed to have Rachel leading the team – not only because she is a veteran of the armed forces, but because she brings so much passion to the role and motivates others to help themselves.”
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Rachel’s goal is to continue to expand the service and develop further in the area of health coaching. She hopes to take a child health support course soon.
In the meantime, she stays fit by running, cycling and playing for the Hurworth women’s football team. She also managed to climb Mount Kilimanjaro.
From caring for animals in international war zones to supporting NHS patients at home in Darlington, Rachel Leavis is clearly a woman with a healthy outlook on life.