The Royal College of Nursing’s general secretary Pat Cullen has said nursing is in her blood.
She is the youngest of six girls, four of whom went on to become nurses.
She also has a brother whom her family tried to convince to become a nurse “but he wasn’t having any of it”, she has said.
Ms Cullen grew up in Carrickmore in Co Tyrone in Northern Ireland. She failed her GCSEs and was unable to continue to A-levels so went to college instead and then became a trainee nurse.
In an interview with the Belfast Telegraph in 2019, she described starting her career in mental health nursing, from where she became an assistant director of mental health services and professional head of nursing.
She told the newspaper: “I can honestly say that I loved every day of working in mental health. I can’t imagine any other career that would have fulfilled me professionally or personally as much.
“I started out working in hospital before moving into the community, which was just mind-blowing and a privilege to look after people in their own homes.”
Ms Cullen, who is also a registered psychotherapist, was a community psychiatric nurse in Twinbrook and Poleglass during the Troubles and has said “the impact of the violence on mental health was shocking”.
Married with children, Ms Cullen had further roles, including deputy director of nursing, safety, quality and patient experience in the Northern Ireland Public Health Agency (PHA), and working at the Northern Ireland Health and Social Care Board (HSCB).
She has also worked as the executive director of nursing and allied health professions within the PHA and HSCB.
In May 2019, she became director of RCN Northern Ireland, having started working for the RCN in 2016.
In October 2019, RCN Northern Ireland took the unprecedented step of balloting members on industrial action, including strike action, over pay and low staffing levels.
— The RCN (@theRCN) October 6, 2022
The union said that, despite intensive negotiations, it was unable to get movement from the Department of Health or Secretary of State to address issues over pay and to begin discussions on safe staffing
Some 92% of members voted in favour of strike action, which took place in December 2019 and January 2020.
Ms Cullen was seen as key to mobilising staff over the strike, and spent considerable time visiting their workplaces and making the RCN’s case in the media.
Now, as part of the wider RCN, Ms Cullen has spent the summer touring NHS workplaces to encourage nurses to vote in favour of a UK-wide ballot.
The union is recommending its 300,000 members walk out over pay, with the result of the ballot due next month.