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2024: Beloved UOW academic awarded posthumous PhD

Dr Kimberley Livingstone was so many things to so many people. She had a personality that could only be described as sparkly; the sort of person who was both empathetic and effervescent, a “force of nature” who was both incredibly warm and vivacious.

Her friends and family often wondered how she did it all.

But as her husband, Ben Livingstone, says, Kimberley knew that life was short, and time was precious, so she had to make the most of every day.

“She truly lived every moment. She didn’t want to waste a minute and she did everything she could to achieve her dreams,” Ben says.

Kimberley, or Dr Livingstone as she would now be known, was a lecturer and a nursing placement facilitator at the University of Wollongong’s Sutherland Campus and a PhD candidate in the School of Education. She passed away in late January, at the age of 42, after a lifelong battle with cystic fibrosis.

This week (Wednesday, 17 April) Kimberley was awarded a posthumous Doctor of Philosophy during the University’s Autumn graduation ceremonies, in recognition of her immense work and passion for nursing. Kimberley was in the process of finalising her PhD entitled, ‘Uncovering registered nurse preceptors’ motivations for supervising undergraduate nursing students through work- integrated learning placements’ when she passed away, with journal publications already published.

Her co-supervisors, Professor Michelle Eady, Associate Professor Bonnie Dean, and Dr Conor West, helped bring her work to fruition to ensure Kimberley received the recognition she deserved and was awarded this prestigious doctorate. One of her research papers was published in the same week as her graduation in the journal Nurse Education Today: How lack of support and recognition for RN preceptors is affecting nursing students’ learning on placement‘.

Ben and the couple’s daughter, Grace, accepted the testamur in Kimberley’s honour, an experience he described as difficult but rewarding.

“There are so many lives that she touched,” Ben says. “Kimberley always wanted to do her PhD. Because she had been a patient throughout her life, she knew so much about nursing and placements, and wanted to make the placement better for everyone. She was a nurse through and through.

“It is an honour to be able to receive this on Kimberley’s behalf. My hope is that it also shows Grace that anything is possible.”

Seizing every opportunity

Professor Eady and Associate Professor Dean say they were in awe of Kimberley’s dedication to her work, particularly in light of her health and family responsibilities.

“There weren’t many nurses in NSW that did not either know Kimberley, work with Kimberley, treat Kimberley, or have Kimberley as a lecturer or facilitator. She made such a huge impact on the UOW community.

“She was a fierce advocate for her students and for the profession of nursing.

“She was a mentor and guiding light to her students, dedicated to nurturing their development and helping them to become the best nurses they could possibly be,” Professor Eady says.

Kimberley’s dedication to the practice and the philosophy of nursing was forged in the fires of her own life experiences. Diagnosed with cystic fibrosis at 12 months old, Kimberley spent much of her life in and out of the hospital.

Despite that, she was an active sportsperson. In a tribute at her funeral, Kimberley’s father Stan said her health and breathing difficulties did not stop her from trying every sport she could.

“Soccer, touch football, swimming, tennis, cross country and even a triathlon, but her true love was netball, which she continued until her illness made it impossible. And of course, then she coached. She was very feisty, and I learned in those early years, you never told her she couldn’t do something!”

Kimberley was also an avid traveller – she and Ben met while both were living in London – and took every opportunity she could to explore the world.

Over the years, however, Kimberley’s health slowly deteriorated and in 2009, she was placed on the waiting list for a lung transplant. It took 13 months, during which she was on oxygen all day every day and in a wheelchair, before Kimberley was given the greatest gift of all, a double lung transplant.

“It was a really double-edged sword moment, because those lungs gave us an extra 14 years with Kim, and a chance for her to become a mother,” Ben says. “But that also represented the worst moment in someone else’s life. We were so appreciative, but we also knew it came with deep sorrow.”

While there were some hiccups in the aftermath of Kimberley’s transplant, Ben says the couple continued to seize every moment, grateful for the extra time they’d been given; Kimberley completed two City to Surfs, two triathlons, and began playing netball again. They also went to the United States, Japan, and Thailand.

Kimberley also became a fierce advocate for the Australian Organ Donation Register, urging others to speak to their family about their donation wishes.

“Transplant saved my life. I was drowning, stuck in a body that wouldn’t work and completely dependent on oxygen, not a life for anyone let alone a 27-year-old,” she said in 2014. 

The path to nursing

The many weeks spent in hospital gave Kimberley an insight into and appreciation for the work of nurses. She had always wanted to be a nurse herself, and after finishing her HSC at Sylvania High School, she began a degree in nursing at Australian Catholic University.

After graduation, she began working in the emergency department of Sutherland Hospital, and then in the Intensive Care Unit at St George Hospital, where she truly found her place and her people.

“Being a nurse was etched into Kimberley’s soul and wired into her DNA,” her colleagues, Rebecca O’Droma and Simone Nelson, said at Kimberley’s funeral.

“After spending a disproportionate amount of time in hospitals growing up, she drew on her lived experience as a patient to guide the exceptional care that she delivered. Kimberley had high expectations of herself and her colleagues, but it wasn’t that she needed everyone to be the most technically skilled; but more that they communicate warmly and effectively, be kind and polite. She was a fantastic patient advocate and a wonderful nurse. However, to this day, we still have no idea how she managed to get all her work done and talk that much at the same time. She was truly a force of nature.”

Ben and Grace Livingstone stand on the graduation stage accepting a PhD cap from UOW Chancellor Michael Still, while a crowd in the background looks on. Photo: Andy Zakeli
Ben and Grace Livingstone accept Dr Kimberley Livingstone’s testamur on her behalf from UOW Chancellor Michael Still. Photo: Andy Zakeli

Kimberley had the unique and unparalleled experience of viewing the nursing profession from every angle. It was this that inspired her to pursue a career in higher education, so that she could share everything she had learned with her colleagues and with the next generation of nurses.

In 2022, Kimberley began a job as a Nursing Placement Facilitator and then a Lecturer in the School of Nursing at UOW Sutherland, roles that enabled her to help students know what to expect on placement while also ensuring that nurse preceptors had the tools they needed to effectively train and support student nurses.

Kimberley’s family and colleagues agree that this is where she truly thrived. She deeply valued the opportunity to foster a sense of compassion and empathy in student nurses while also building their resilience in a challenging work environment.

 “She had a foot in nursing and a foot in education,” Ben says. “She really wanted to support nurses before they had fully entered the workforce, to make sure they had everything they needed to do their job before they completed their training. But she also wanted nursing preceptors, who train the new nurses, to be the best they could be at their jobs. Her passion was for making a better nurse.”

This became the foundation of Kimberley’s PhD research: enhancing learning opportunities for students in clinical settings, which would in turn elevate the standards of nursing care.

As much of her work focused on Work Integrated Learning, she enlisted Professor Eady and Associate Professor Dean, both experts in the field, as her co-supervisors. They were delighted to be able to help her to thrive in her academic career.

“Kimberley was a special student with a drive and passion for her topic that made her own supervisors excited by her work. We were a close-knit team, with Kim as the captain, steering an important journey of discovery in an area that deserves more attention. Kim’s favourite saying was that fortune favours the brave, and Kim was the bravest of students who will live in our hearts forever and continue to inspire nurses and nursing educators for generations to come,” says Professor Eady.

Kimberley’s nursing legacy 

Kimberley’s legacy, on both a personal and professional level, will continue in many ways, in the nursing profession, at UOW Sutherland, and in her family and friends. It is clear she touched the lives of countless people while wearing her many hats.

She left a legacy statement, and at the heart of it was a simple question that she wanted her colleagues in nursing to always remember: “What would Kimberley do?”

St George Hospital has established the Dr Kimberley Livingstone Preceptors Award, an annual recognition for established nurses who have gone above and beyond in supporting trainee nurses. It was part of Kimberley’s legacy statement, a document that her friends, family, and colleagues are working to honour and fulfil.

“She had the most unique perspective of the nursing experience. She had lived it. She knew that with passion, compassion, and empathy, nurses would be so much better off,” Ben said.

More than 900 people attended Kimberley’s funeral, a true reflection of her immense impact and reach. For Ben, the greatest fulfilment is knowing that Kimberley did not miss a moment of her life. She had set out to make every day count, and she did.

“She lived her dream by doing as much as she could. With her PhD, she wanted to show Grace that even though her health was not great, she was still using her brain, that anything is possible. She knew that education was the key to everything.”

 

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