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Esther McDonnell: My Working Life

Published on: 12 Dec 2023

Gideon Anietie Benson: My Working Life


What did you want to be when you were at school/growing up?

I wanted to be a physiotherapist.


Why did you change your mind?

I just missed out on getting the marks I needed to study physiotherapy, so I did a degree in science instead and that is when I stumbled across occupational therapy. While I was studying, I worked in an institution with people with disabilities carrying out rehabilitation plans to prepare them for community-based living – helping them learn life skills such as making a cup of tea that they had never done before. Seeing people’s progress was inspiring and it made me decide that occupational therapy was the career for me.


Can you describe your work/what you do in 1 sentence?

Teach and support people to implement self-management techniques to manage their long covid symptoms, so they can return to valued roles and occupations.


What 3 factors make you skip into work?

  1. Knowing that through my intervention patients will be able to return to being more like their usual selves (what I do really works and can change people’s lives).
  2. The team I work with (they are hard-working, supportive and fun to be around).
  3. My managers (they promote an encouraging and trusting environment).


Why would you recommend your career to a young person?

Occupational therapists work in a large variety of settings with people of all ages and disabilities/impairments. Due to our “dual training” in physical and mental health, our approach is very holistic. Seeing the results of your interventions – people being able to do things that they couldn’t do before – is extremely motivating. There are also so many career opportunities – not just jobs with “occupational therapist” in the title.


What was your best career move?

I can’t pinpoint one best move – I’ve learnt from all my jobs, not only clinical skills, but about myself and others as well. I’m really thrilled with my current job however – it was the right time for me to move into community work, and the opportunities that I have to develop myself clinically and professionally within the team and organisation are exciting.


What’s the best advice you’ve ever got from a work colleague? 

When I missed out on a promotion early in my career, my manager advised me that spending longer in a lower-banded position was no bad thing and would actually give me great management experience. Through attaining more clinical skills I would develop a better understanding of people and their behaviour, and by observing different management styles I would see what I would like to do/not do as a manager.


Is the thought of retirement a dream or a nightmare – and why? 

A dream – an opportunity to read more books, take up art, and use all of my recipe books.


What do you do to relax/de-stress?

Walk along the river, speak with friends.


What is your guiltiest pleasure?

Watching the Netflix series Virgin River.


Where are you happiest and why? 

Swimming – ideally in the ocean or a lake or river, but pool swimming is pretty great as well.


Your most treasured possession and why? 

Probably my passport – with family living far away, it is vital to remain connected.


On a typical day, what do you eat for lunch, where and how long is your break? 

If I’m working from home, I try to eat a salad – usually at my dining table which doubles as a desk. When in the office, I take a short walk and pick up a sandwich or some sushi.


If you were an animal, what would you be and why?

A dolphin – for the joy of being in the ocean of course!



Esther McDonnell grew up in Australia and started a Bachelor of Advanced Science at UNSW Sydney after school.  Following a gap year in Canada and the UK, Esther returned to university and graduated with a Bachelor of Applied Science (Occupational Therapy) from the University of Sydney in 2004. Her first post was as a rotational occupational therapist at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital in Sydney, where she primarily covered the HIV and haematology/oncology wards.

After moving to the UK in 2007, she worked as a locum in hospitals around London, then as a community-based HIV occupational therapist, before moving to a permanent post at Chelsea and Westminster NHS Foundation Trust, in HIV, oncology and palliative care. Between 2013 and 2021 Esther was chair of the Rehabilitation in HIV Association (RHIVA), presenting at national and international conferences.

In June 2021, she moved to Central and North West London NHS Foundation Trust to take up a post in the newly formed Camden Covid Recovery Service, supporting people to recover from long covid.