Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 30 October 2014

Tender, loving care

The BT Woman of the Year awards aim to honour the most inspirational female in Northern Ireland - and also a woman working in the voluntary sector. To get you thinking, here are two women that win our admiration.

• Click here to make a nomination
• Categories and entry details in full
Inspirational woman - Imelda McGucken and Brenda Atkins

Marie Curie Nurse of the Year Imelda McGucken (47) lives with husband Andy (50) and children Gavin (24), Duane (21) and Andrea (14) in Cookstown. She says:

My job has changed the way I look at life so much. I used to go mad if the house hadn't been cleaned - now I realise that my family and their health are the most important things. The rest is all just material stuff. Working with patients coping with cancer definitely puts things into perspective.

I've been working as a nurse since 1979 - nearly 28 years - and the last seven of those have been with Marie Curie. For the first 19 years I worked at South Tyrone hospital as a generally trained nurse until it all but closed and I moved to Magherafelt and the Mid-Ulster Hospital. While there, I started off doing one shift every fortnight for Marie Curie just to see how it went. I loved it from the minute I started, especially the continued one-to-one nature of the work which was so different to what I'd been used to.

Now, I do 12 nights in a month, but every one of those nights is different. Support can be emotional or practical but one thing that stays the same is the reaction of the families when I arrive.

They are always so delighted to see a Marie Curie nurse coming. It's just incredible to do a job where I get such a great response every time I go to work.

There's no one specific role that I take on, it changes from family to family so it's impossible to say "these are the qualities you need to have to be a Marie Curie nurse". Some families need a wee bit of a joke and emotional lift, others need to talk. Some patients want to tell me things they can't tell their families and some families just want me to sit with them and look through old pictures.

But I suppose listening and caring are the most important things. I know sometimes I can talk too much, but in so many cases what people need most is a listening ear.

Sometimes I hear things that are difficult to hear and the heartstrings are pulled. I'm quite a soft person and often I've had a few tears in the car on the way home. There are times I get home and go to bed but can't sleep because I've so much to think about.

My father was diagnosed with cancer 15 months ago and died five weeks later. It was very fast and devastating for our family.

He was a very fresh 82 and had gone into hospital with something completely different but left diagnosed with cancer. All my family helped care for him but it was a difficult time.

From personal experience and from work I know that when a family member dies the whole dynamic of the family changes and whether it happens quickly or over a long period of time it doesn't make a difference. No matter how long it is, the families and patients will always want more.

Sometimes I share my personal experience with patients and families if I think it can help them appreciate that I know what they are going through. I'm not just the nurse, I become a family friend very quickly. I'm in their house for eight hours at a time so we often form very special bonds.

As a nurse I would never dream of talking about what happens at work with my family or anyone else. But if myself or any of the nurses ever feel things are getting on top of us we have group get-togethers where we can share our experiences and talk about anything that might be worrying us.

I remember when I started working for Marie Curie people asked me why I'd chosen this sort of work. They wanted to know if I found it morbid.

But I think they realise now that it's something incredibly rewarding. There are lows and highs and wonderful nights with tears and laughter. I love the variety and I love caring for patients - everyone of them is so special to me. I've met so many beautiful, lovely people and often think 'if only we could meet in other circumstances'.

It was lovely when I was named Marie Curie Nurse of the Year. I received lots of cards from families I'd worked with and I was so pleased to get nominated on the basis of reports from patients and their families. I never expect anything for what I do but it's nice to get a wee bit of recognition and I feel really privileged and honoured to have won this award.

There was a ceremony in the Marie Curie centre and all the family came with me and then a gala in the Waterfront Hall where I was interviewed by Blue Peter's Zoe Salmon and met radio presenters John Daly and Hugo Duncan. I hope I can use the role to promote the great work done by Marie Curie.

I always wanted to be a nurse and the best part of the job is that I feel I'm always making a difference. So many patients and families want the security of their own home and their own surroundings when diagnosed with a terminal illness. It's fantastic that Marie Curie can help them have that.

The average age of those I care for may be older people but the youngest patient was 30. I used to think it was worse for younger patients but now I see them all as members of my family - my parents or sisters - and regardless of age no patient has it any easier dealing with cancer.

Sometimes the families need more attention than the patient but one thing I'll never say, if I'm asked, is how long anyone has left. I don't think anyone can ever really say.

If I've been with a patient then it can be very soul-destroying to leave them to go on holiday because I like to follow patients through to the end. But sometimes I have to go ahead and book time off. I'm married with a family and I have to be there for them, too. I always would go to the home or send a card if a patient passes away. I like to keep in touch but I can only do so for so long before I have to cool it.

My husband and I recently celebrated our 25th wedding anniversary and we booked a holiday in Tenerife to celebrate. My eldest son has a marketing degree and is about to take up a maternity post in the Marie Curie fundraising department so maybe he's going down the same route as me. And all the family like to help out when it comes to fundraising for Marie Curie.

I think attitudes to cancer are changing. I was speaking to a 50-year-old patient recently and we were saying how in that past it used to be 'the C word' or 'that nasty thing' but now people are starting to talk about it more openly - sadly I think it's because cancer does touch the hearts of so many people.



Marie Curie Healthcare Assistant of the Year Brenda Atkins (38) lives in Belfast with husband Richard (34) and their children, Molly (4) and three-year-old twins Paddy and Scarlet. She says:

I don't really think of winning as a personal accolade because we're all part of a team and so much work goes into all aspects of the service, from co-ordinating who goes where to fundraising and nursing. It's more like an opportunity to act like an ambassador and publicise the work done by Marie Curie. I might be out on my own visiting the patients and families but there's a huge team behind me.

I more or less drifted into nursing. As a child I had no aspirations to do anything but ended up training as a nurse and working in England where I married my husband and lived for 16 years. But recently we moved back to Northern Ireland where I started with Marie Curie in September last year, working two nights a week, and I can honestly say it's the most rewarding job I've ever done.

I work primarily in the community, going out to patients who need full nursing care. I stay with patients from 11pm to 7am, travelling within a 25-mile radius of my home in Belfast. There's no such thing as a typical night. I've done everything from feeding dogs to boiling eggs. I see if the patient is comfortable, if they need a drink or if they need to go to the loo. I change the bed and help them get freshened up and settled for the night. Sometimes the patient or the relatives just need a chat. Some patients don't sleep and I can be sat talking to them all night. Sometimes I think it's easier for them to talk to someone outside of their family.

I get to know patients and families very well and very quickly because I'm coming into their homes and it's very intimate. That's one of the best things about the job, getting to know so many people so well, but it's also one of the hardest things because I do get very close to the families. It could be easy to get bogged down emotionally especially if it's a young family involved because I see the similarities with my own family. But so often the families are coping so well and happy to be getting the care they want that I have to think 'wake up, it's not about you'. I'll always pick myself up because I'm no help to them if I'm down.

It's incredible seeing how people deal with their illness. People sometimes ask me 'isn't it depressing, having to deal with death all the time?', but it isn't depressing at all. Of course there is a sad element but it's also very uplifting. People can be so accepting and open about their situation and have an incredible clarity in the way they view their illness.

When I started working two nights a week it would have been easy to just do a job where I float around but with my work I feel like every shift is making a difference.

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