Nursing through the Troubles in Northern Ireland.

It wasnt pleasant being  a young girl in the 70’s and 80’s in Northern Ireland but I was very lucky being brought up on a farm in the countryside just outside Londonderry.

But to get to school I had to cross the River Foyle on a bus and had my fair share of bomb scares, protests and stones being thrown at the bus because of what school uniform you wore( basically what religion you were).

In 1981 a year before I did my A levels I decided to become a nurse and had to travel to Belfast for interviews to 3 hospitals. This was the year of the Hunger Strikes and supporters of the strike all flew black flags from their houses and I remember thinking to myself” why I’m I leaving my safe home to go to a mad place like Belfast”. Anyway I got my interviews and in October 1982 I travelled to the Ulster Hospital, Dundonald just outside Belfast to start my training. I was 18 yrs old.

In those days it was so many weeks in the classroom and your learning and experience came from the wards and you learned from the bottom up( which by the way is the best way in my opinion) But little did I know what was in front of me.

Everyday the Troubles were at the forefront of people lives and nowhere more so than the hospitals.

One day while I was on duty there was a call to the ward I was on literally 4 months into my training and I was still 18. There were casualties coming in from a bomb blast in Belfast. Doctors, nurses, student nurses were all involved. I went with a senior nurse to one of the ambulances were a member of the security forces lay on a stretcher and I will never forget the look on his face of pain and terror. I could see things weren’t good and he had serious injuries. They took him in doors and I had to carry his amputated leg behind him.He was put into a cubicle and I stayed, held his hand and talked to him until he passed away.  His name was David. He was 20 and I was 18.

So my training went on nursing security forces beside terrorists and having to put my own thoughts and beliefs at the back of my mind.

In those days we didnt have things in place like they do now to help staff. Drs, nurses, cleaners, porters, we all cried on each others shoulders and tried to move on and support one another.

Then I got married in 1986 and my husband was a member of the security forces and he carried a personal weapon at all times. We had to check our cars everyday in case their was a bomb underneath it even me. One morning I was leaving to go to work 7am, it was dark and I was using a flashlight to check underneath my car and something didnt seem right. I got my husband and he rang the police. Bomb disposal were called and a few hours later I learned that it was a viable device and if I had got into the car and the bomb had detonated I would have been killed.

The last really horrific incident of my nursing career was in 1998 when I was working in Altnagelvin Hospital in Londonderry. The Omagh Bomb. I was working that day, when the phone call came little did we know the scale and carnage we were to expect. It was my 2nd flight in a chinook helicopter as well.

We were sent out in ambulances to the scene and all I can say is’ it was like a warzone. Bodies, rubble, people yelling and screaming, walking wounded, people looking for children and family. It was a total nightmare. But police, army, doctors ,nurses, ambulance personnel we all pulled together, worked together using all our expertise, terrified stiff and worried if there would be any more blasts ,working under horrendous circumstances we lost lives that day but we also saved many.

When I decided at 17 I wanted to become a nurse little did I know what i was getting into. I know I have told horrendous stories today but I also have many great memories and many fun times being a nurse. I have met many fantastic patients and colleagues along the way and I also know I made a difference to many peoples lives and when I still have a few nightmares of what I went through as so many of us do I try to remember that.

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  1. I and a lot my mates owe a great deal, some of us our lives, to the hospital staff of Northern Ireland.
    Late in the day, but a I send heartfelt thanks to you and all your fellows for your great work under often very difficult conditions.

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