words by Eve Jacobs / photograph by John Emerson
he “legend” and legacy of Princess Diana are alive and well in Newark, NJ, in the warm heart and lively mind of advanced nurse practitioner (APN) Peter Oates. Talking with him about the “old days,” an entire chapter of modern British history suddenly comes alive. British by birth and a Londoner for much of his 20s, Oates played a pivotal role in the private lives of Great Britain’s much-heralded royal family, earning him an invitation to the 1981 wedding of Charles and Diana, as well as a continuing relationship with the family.
The story of Oates’ professional life did not begin with meeting Diana, of course. It’s the tale of a young man who chose an unconventional career path and became a pioneer, of sorts, with some darn good stories to tell. A 1975 nursing graduate of Guy’s Hospital in London (one of the top-rated teaching hospitals in England, he says proudly), Oates entered his profession in the days when men in nursing were almost unheard of. (There were two men in his class of 90 and one dropped out.) His training was hands-on right from go, he says, since nursing students were the primary workforce in British hospitals.
Oates made his way from staff nurse in general surgery to senior staff nurse in charge of the Accident and Emergency Department, where he discovered his “passion” for critical care. “The world is your oyster” is an aphorism that few take to heart, but the young nurse who heard those words from his teacher had a burning desire to travel. So in 1978, Oates took off for Holland, where he worked as an intensive care nurse for a year.
Returning to his home-base of London, Oates did private duty nursing while trying to decide his next move. Fate intervened in the form of an important job offer. Lord Spencer, the VIII Earl of Althorp and the father of Diana (not yet a princess), had had a massive brain hemorrhage and was not expected to survive. The employment agency called to tell Oates that the family needed a male ICU-trained nurse who would come to Lord Spencer’s side immediately. Could he take on this assignment?
The answer was yes. From October 1978 to March 1979, Oates nursed Lord Spencer, not through his anticipated final days, but from his “deathbed” through his rehabilitation and back to health. During that time, the family fell in love with Oates’ positive outlook, strength of character and, of course, the unmistakable results of his professional and tender-loving-care.
“Diana was just 17 when I first met her,” he recounts, “and during this time, she started dating Charles.” But the end of Lord Spencer’s need for a nurse did not prove to be an ending to the relationship between the soon-to-be-princess and Oates.
In 1981, Oates was one of the selected few to receive an invitation to the wedding, which was viewed on television by an estimated 700 million people worldwide, as well as the prenuptial ball. In 1982, he received a Christmas card showing Diana holding baby Prince William, born the previous June.
Oates had returned to work at Guy’s Hospital, where he stayed until 1983 as a night supervisor. Located near London Bridge, the hospital serves many locals, he says, and it was there he learned the import of “taking care of your community. You can’t just stay inside the four walls of your hospital.” Residents of the East End of London, where he often went to the markets, “love their nurses,” he comments.
Despite his highly responsible job “being in charge of the hospital at night, including all of the students,” Oates once again “got itchy to travel.” This time, he set his sights on the U.S, in part because of an interest sparked by Dr. Kildare. (For those not glued to their TVs in the ’60s, Dr. Kildare was a very popular NBC medical drama focusing on the trials and tribulations of a young intern in a large metropolitan hospital). Landing first in San Francisco where he spent several months, Oates made his way to the East coast, where he became a staff nurse in UMDNJ-University Hospital’s neurosurgical intensive care unit in January 1984. “I needed the East coast’s weather and seasons,” he comments.
From 1986 to 1989, he worked his way up from assistant head nurse to head nurse of that ICU. “I saw so much, I learned so much there,” he says. He also met his “wonderful, supportive” partner Gary Paul Wright, an HIV/AIDS worker and advocate, in 1989, and they have been together since then.
In 1991, Oates was approached by University Hospital’s nursing administration to head-up the nursing function of the Surgical/Trauma ICU, busy “24 hours a day, seven days a week. It was a real challenge.”
As those “challenges” took over more and more of his life, Oates decided to take a step back to re-evaluate his career. Did he still love critical care? He did. Did he want to leave it? “Never,” he says. But as he became more involved in management with less connection to patients, “there was a big hole in my soul that wasn’t being filled,” he recalls.
So in 1994, he returned to working directly with patients as a nurse clinician in University Hospital’s outpatient Infectious Disease Practice. He also enrolled in the UMDNJ-School of Nursing’s Adult Nurse Practitioner Program and earned a master’s degree in 1999. (He had earned a Bachelor of Science in Nursing degree from New Jersey City University in May 1992.)
With the master’s degree came a new opportunity. The Francois Xavier Bagnoud Center (FXBC) at UMDNJ in Newark, which has played and still plays a prominent role in the local and worldwide fight against HIV/AIDS, needed someone with just his talents and background, particularly his flair for connecting with people one-on-one and inspiring their trust.
HIV/AIDS — no longer in the headlines on a daily basis — has not gone away. There are many individuals living and struggling in this country with HIV, including women and their children, some of whom are adolescents infected before drugs were regularly administered to block perinatal transmission. “I was originally hired to take care of the adults, most of them the mothers of children already coming to the clinic for care,” he says. “They are predominantly caregivers and have so much going on in their lives.”
Oates is their guy. Over the years of his working with Newark’s HIV/AIDS population, he has developed strong relationships with his clients, and is determined to ensure their well-being, not a simple task at all. He fits his schedule around theirs and has become a part of their daily lives. “My heart is in Newark,” he says. “I’m very passionate about the community here. It has taught me a lot.”
And even though Oates relocated to the U.S. in 1984, the relationship with Diana — carried out through correspondence across a vast ocean—continued warmly for many years. When he heard that Charles and Diana were separated and planning a divorce, he wrote her a personal note of support, and despite all of her public responsibilities and private suffering, she responded.
Interestingly, the tie that bound Oates and Diana went even deeper than an exchange of letters over many years, because Diana became a major crusader on behalf of those afflicted with HIV/AIDS. In fact, she was one of the first prominent personalities to take on this cause. “I was going to ask Diana to visit here, but it never happened,” he says sadly.
England continued to “call to” Oates periodically. In April 2006, his father became deathly ill, and he traveled to New Mills, a small town in Derbyshire, England, to nurse his father — who wanted to remain “in the house where mum had died” — for seven days during his final illness. “He was one of my best patients,” Oates says with emotion. “He was an absolute sweetheart. That was a great privilege, a great honor. He died a happy man.”
Oates is now the manager of Health Care Services at FXBC and is still crusading on behalf of the HIV-infected of Newark — including managing grants and keeping the grants going — as well as teaching future healthcare professionals. “I absolutely encourage other men to go into this profession,” he offers. “Many men have the potential to be nurturing, but feel they must be stoic. Nursing gives them permission to express their nurturing side.”
As we sit in his office in the FXB Center in the heart of this city’s Central Ward, he ponders contacting Diana’s two sons, who, he believes, have demonstrated an interest in carrying on her work in fighting HIV/AIDS globally. “Perhaps, one day,” he says, “we can continue that work together.”