Guernsey Press

‘It’s a great community, people are supportive’

Heather Langlois, chief executive of St John, tells Matt Fallaize how her life has been shaped by unexpected and impulsive actions which have led her to a husband, home and career she loves...

Heather Langlois, CEO of St John. (Picture by Sophie Rabey, 33080604)

In each of us, there lurk contradictions, and part of a journalist’s job is to find them. Some interviewees make it easier than others. Heather Langlois makes it very easy. Initially she describes herself as methodical, thorough and cautious, but she soon reveals that most of the significant things she has done, and which have shaped her life so far, were random and impulsive, irrational even.

Like suddenly leaving a good job she loved on America’s east coast to take off on a weeks-long medical mission to desperately poor villages in Papua New Guinea. And deciding to get married literally within minutes of first coming face to face with her future husband, Adam, a Guernseyman. And organising their wedding at less than two weeks’ notice. And, not long after relocating to Guernsey five-and-a-half years ago, rocking up at St John on a whim and offering to work for free.

‘It’s bizarre that I have done these things, completely impulsively, because normally that is totally not me. But it just seems to have been the way, and I can’t really explain it,’ says Heather.

Today, Heather is the chief executive of St John. It has been quite a journey, geographically and metaphorically, from where she grew up in King George, Virginia, a small town about 70 miles south of Washington, DC. ‘It was quite rural, with two traffic lights, and you only went to the shops at weekends. In some ways, there were similarities to Guernsey. It was a great place to grow up. I absolutely loved it,’ says Heather, in a wonderfully distinctive accent, which sounds part Irish, part West Country, part American, and which she can’t explain.

She also loves Guernsey – ‘I see a lot of my husband and kids and enjoy the lifestyle, which is a real benefit here; it’s a great community, people are supportive, they really put an arm around you’ – but in her heart the US remains home and Heather is still slightly surprised that she and Adam have built their life together on this side of the Atlantic.

‘We had been having conversations on Zoom or Skype for a few weeks. I came to Guernsey, my friend dropped me off by the Slaughterhouse, and we met in person for the first time. We were a bit nervous at first, but after about 10 minutes we looked at each other and were like “when are we getting married?” It was that easy. We just knew. Then there was the issue of which one of us was going to move.

(Picture by Sophie Rabey, 33080609)

‘When my dad spoke at our wedding, he said “this is the daughter who, if she went to stay with my parents for a couple of weeks, would cry every night because she didn’t like being away from home”. For lots of reasons it would have been so much easier for Adam to move to me. Our faith is really important to us, and we decided to go away separately and pray about it. When we came back together about a week later, I said “the answer I feel I’ve got is not the answer I wanted – I think I’m supposed to move there”, and he said he thought that too.

‘It was not the logical decision, but we were at peace with it, and we trusted God would see us through, and after that it all just seemed to fall into place.’

Heather’s degree and background are in nursing, with a specialism in paediatrics. Despite the island’s nursing shortage, immigration rules prevented her from doing paid work while she and Adam were only engaged and not yet married. Weeks after moving here and already restless, she saw an advert in the Guernsey Press about first aid training at St John.

‘I didn’t phone anybody or book an interview. I thought, in true American style, I would just rock up and say, “my name is Heather, here is my CV, and if you’re interested I’d like to talk about a role”. We had a conversation and fortunately they wanted to hire me. I took on some of the adult training and was running the first aid in schools programme. But I had to do it voluntarily because of my visa. After a couple of months of this, one night just before Christmas, we were having dinner and I asked Adam what he was doing a week on Wednesday. He said “nothing I know of” and I said “great because I’ve booked the Greffe for us to get married”. We got married on 8 January 2019. We then had a wedding ceremony over here in May and went to America in June and did it again, so I married the same person three times in the same year.’

Heather led St John’s training services for nearly three years before being appointed chief executive two years ago. ‘I loved the training role, where I learned a lot about the business side of things. Then I was ready to do something a bit different. I said to my husband that it felt like there was a reason God had put me here, not to be using my medical licence, but to have some kind of impact. I felt that in my gut, but I didn’t know what it was. If you had asked me five years ago if I would now be doing this job, or anything like it, I would have said absolutely not. But I interviewed and got the job.

‘For the first year or so, I had this awful imposter syndrome, thinking “how did I get here?” and “should I really be doing this job?” I have a mentor and we talked about this quite a lot. Just recently, a few months ago, he said he didn’t see that in me anymore. I said I still felt it all the time, but he felt I had more confidence, and it’s true that I have probably settled into the role more now. You know, if I ever get to the point where I don’t have imposter syndrome or I’m not nervous about the responsibility of this job and the rich history of our organisation, it would be time for me to go and do something else because it would mean I had become too comfortable and that wouldn’t be good for the organisation or for me. I think feeling a level of vulnerability and having a level of discomfort keeps your eyes wide open to what’s happening around you and it makes you agile and reactive. I think that’s really important in this organisation and also in a community of this size.’

St John is essentially two organisations in one – the emergency ambulance service, partially funded by the States, and the charity, which is the part Heather leads, funded entirely by donations. ‘A family in two parts,’ she calls it.

Heather knows the distinction is not well understood and hopes to improve misconceptions. Heather oversees more than 50 volunteers – ‘our heroes’, she calls them – but more are needed to meet the community’s demand for their range of services, which include first aid at events, supplying equipment, training, a youth programme, and a library specialising in large print books.

‘We love this community. We love being there at times of need. When you go to an event, those people you see in black trousers and green tops, they are all volunteers, who undertake training in their own time, over many, many hours. It takes a lot of money to maintain our vehicles and equipment. Through our youth programme, we are working with the next generation of paramedics, nurses, doctors, business leaders, building their first aid and health care skills and also their confidence and inter-personal skills. We need support, including financial support, to continue to provide these services, and that is becoming more of a struggle across the third sector.’

Ten years ago, the emergency ambulance service was in crisis. Health & Social Care said it was technically insolvent and started developing plans to take it over. There was talk of a partial merger with the fire brigade. Relations between staff and management were strained to say the least. The Civil Contingencies Authority became involved, commissioning a wholesale review, which prompted changes which have gradually stabilised the service at a time of remarkable increases in demand.

Heather thinks the way it operates is an advantage. ‘The way the frontline ambulance service is run means it can be dynamic and agile. Our colleagues do an amazing job. Their clinical governance standards are really high. They have such compassion and empathy. They are brilliant to work alongside. From everything I’ve seen, I think St John does a fantastic job of running that frontline ambulance service.’

(Picture by Peter Frankland, 33080620)

For an interviewer, it’s too easy a cliche to say someone is passionate about their work, and frankly frequently exaggerated too, but there is something strikingly fervent, romantic even, about Heather’s commitment to medicine, nursing and caring. Perhaps it was in the blood: her mum was a nurse before she transferred to social work, supporting families with young children, and an uncle was a fireman and paramedic. She was just 13 when she earnestly requested work at her local GP practice, which allowed her to file paperwork as a volunteer, and she cannot remember ever wanting to do anything other than medicine. At 15, despite her parents’ concerns about taking on too much, Heather joined the nearest ambulance service, volunteering after school and at weekends, alongside numerous sporting commitments, as well as studying, and she took exams to be an emergency medical technician just a day after her 16th birthday. She had long since decided she was on a path to nursing school.

After university, and once in full-time nursing, Heather became a paediatric nurse, in a centre which built long-term relationships with families. ‘When you see a family’s first born, the day they come out of hospital, and follow them for the first years of their life, you see them grow and develop, you see their eating habits and how their personalities change, and you just feel so connected to that family. When a second child arrives, you already have a good understanding of the family, medically and in other ways. I would get invited to ballet recitals or football games because you just become part of that family and they rely on you. I loved those relationships. I think it can help to know when something isn’t right.

‘I’ll never forget the first day I diagnosed a seven-year-old with cancer. I had seen her and known her since she was two. She walked into my office one day after they had been on holiday. She had been cliff jumping into the water. Her mum said she smacked the water a bit with her shins and cried and it had swollen up a little. Her mum said that a couple of days later she was up playing and running, but three or four weeks later the swelling was still there. I looked at it and I had this sinking feeling in my gut that something was not right. I sent her off for an x-ray, hoping I was wrong, and it showed she had one of the rarest forms of bone cancer. A week later, she was at a treatment centre in Texas, which I think was the only place in the country that dealt with that form of childhood cancer. That kind of thing just stays with you forever. I’ll never forget the mum phoning me to say, six months later, that her little girl was cancer-free. You know, we had caught it early enough. There’s a lot of emotion involved of course. This is something we talk about with our volunteers. When you’re in health care, there is always going to be something that hits you emotionally.’

Heather’s time in Papua New Guinea, providing rudimentary but essential health care to impoverished communities without running water or electricity, was a different kind of experience, but no less formative. ‘Some days we could see hundreds and hundreds of people. I was running a paediatric clinic and overseeing immunisations. You would see parents coming in with their children, having hiked for three days, to stand in line in the scorching sun for days on end, just to get one set of immunisations for their children, just to give them something because children there are dying from measles or rubella or tetanus. Seeing that kind of thing really changes you.’

Papua New Guinea led unexpectedly to Guernsey because another nurse on the mission, who was working locally and became a good friend of Heather’s, introduced her to Adam.

‘This is my home,’ she says, but thoughts of America, and one day returning there to live, are never far away.

‘My husband and I talk about it all the time. There are so many possibilities there. Whether that’s when we’re still in a career or in retirement or when our children are a bit older, I don’t know. We enjoy tasting wine and learning about it, it fascinates us, and one of the things we’ve always said we would love to do is move back to the US, buy a plot of land, open a wedding business, and start a vineyard. I mean, everyone’s got a pipe dream, right.’

But this is one woman who seems to have a habit of making pipe dreams come true.