Rachel Leavis has gone from serving in The Army – looking after dogs trained to search for explosives in war zones – to playing a leading role in a new NHS initiative in Darlington. PETER BARRON reports

WHEN it comes to career paths, Rachel Leavis has certainly chosen a challenging route to finding the job that perfectly fits her skills and personality.

Next year will mark 20 years since she left The Army, where she served in the Royal Veterinary Corps, caring for armed explosive detection dogs in war zones like Kosovo and Bosnia.

It was her job to ensure the dogs were in prime condition for such dangerous work alongside their heroic human handlers.

Today, by stark contrast, Rachel is using her skills and experience back home in the peaceful market town of Darlington. Her care is no longer focused on the dogs of war, but on helping humans to deal with their health problems in a pioneering initiative designed to ease the burden on primary care in the NHS.

Instead of making a difference to people’s lives in areas of conflict abroad, she is Health and Wellbeing Coach Lead for Primary Healthcare Darlington, making a difference in the community where she was raised as a child.

“I love coming to work every day because I know I’m going to be part of a team that’s helping others,” she smiles.

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Everyone knows that the NHS is under intense strain, with a growing population inevitably piling the pressure on staff every day. And the creation of Health and Wellbeing Coaches, like Rachel, is part of a nationwide attempt – launched in January – to create greater capacity.

The idea is to teach people to manage their own relatively minor health conditions themselves, so they have the skills and confidence to avoid the need to go to GPs’ practices or accident and emergency departments.

“It’s early days but the signs are really positive,” says Rachel, who is leading an initial team of four in Darlington.

She was born in Peterborough but grew up in Darlington as far back 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.

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As soon as she left school, in 1996, Rachel pursued her love of animals to become 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.

As well as Kosovo and Bosnia, she also spent time in Cyprus, Kenya, and Germany, where she was living when she left The Army in 2004. She became a youth worker in the Army Welfare Service in Germany for a couple of years before her passion for keeping fit took her career in a new direction.

“I really got into fitness, lost a lot of weight, and I decided to take it to a different level, so I qualified as a personal trainer,” she recalls.

After having twins in 2008, she moved back to the UK, and worked as a personal trainer in gyms in Melton Mowbray.

Six years later, she was offered the opportunity to manage the new Elite gym in Stockton and returned to the North-East.

Seven years down the line, she found the chance to play a key role in a new NHS initiative irresistible, and joined Primary Healthcare Darlington as Health and Wellbeing Coach Lead.

She manages a team comprising Caroline Nicholson, Rhys Todd and Peter Bell and, since the launch of the service in January, more than 350 people have been helped, with 143 currently on the books.

Over six-12 face-to-face sessions – usually lasting between 30-45 minutes – the team members assess the best way to help people to manage conditions that can include asthma, diabetes, obesity, coronary heart disease, joint pain, and mental health.

Assessments are carried out at the start and the end of the sessions and, nationally, 40 per cent of those taking part have improved health through supported self-management, resulting in 18 per cent fewer visits to GP surgeries.

“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 in managing their conditions at home. If we can do that, we know we're alleviating pressure on the NHS.”

And the initiative is already making a significant impact. Out of the clients the team has worked with in the past month, 32 per cent reported a decrease in feelings of anxiety and depression.

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The Health and Wellbeing Coaches work closely with an 11-strong social prescribing team, which was already established to signpost 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 on her own and suffering from isolation issues.

"She didn't want to go out, and wore headphones all the time. For our first meeting, we met outside because of her social anxiety, but by the end of the intervention, she was coming in without her headphones and wearing a big smile.

"She'd gained so much more confidence, and it made me so proud of how far she's come. That's what makes it all worthwhile, when you see those lightbulb moments.

"It's about giving people time and space, and an ear to listen. We never dictate to anyone."

The service is funded by the Government through the Additional Roles Reimbursement Scheme (ARRS), and caseloads are growing as GPs become more aware of the service.

Ethna Parker, Operational Manager for Living Well Services, in Darlington, has no doubt that it's money well spent.

"The feedback from patients has been incredible. For many of them, it's been life-changing," says Ethna.

"We're blessed to have Rachel leading the team – not just because she's a forces veteran, but because she brings such passion to the role and motivates others to help themselves."

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Rachel's aim is to keep growing the service, and to develop herself in the sphere of health coaching. She hopes to take a course in supporting children's health soon.

In the meantime, she keeps herself fit by running, cycling, and playing for the Hurworth Women's Football Team. She's also managed to climb Kilimanjaro for good measure.

From caring for animals in international war zones, to supporting NHS patients back home in Darlington, Rachel Leavis is clearly a woman with a healthy outlook on life.