Just like Call the Midwife's Jenny - NI nurse who went from helping to bring new life into world to supporting others about to leave
Published 17/03/2014 | 08:30
Buckets of tears were cried by millions of viewers during the poignant final episode of hit BBC series Call the Midwife and for one Northern Ireland fan the emotional storyline had particular resonance.
Local nurse Dympna Devlin could have been watching her own career unfold as death took the place of birth as the central theme in the affecting episode screened last weekend.
A big shock for viewers was the departure of character Jenny Lee, played by Jessica Raine, which the BBC kept a closely guarded secret until it leaked just hours before the episode was transmitted.
While the actress is going off to pursue new opportunities in Hollywood, her popular character was saying goodbye to midwifery after being drawn to the growing hospice movement.
Instead of helping bring new life into the world, she wanted to nurse people in their last days and exited the show in a storyline which saw her leave the maternity wards to work in a Marie Curie Hospice. It was for the exact same reason that Rostrevor Marie Curie nurse Dympna left her job as a midwife to specialise in palliative care. Dympna says: "Like Nurse Jenny Lee, I had a bit of a calling. I loved midwifery, bringing life into the world, but I also felt that I had a lot to give at the other end of the spectrum."
And the parallels for the local woman didn't end there.
Heart-wrenching final scenes which also had viewers reaching for their hankies saw popular midwife character Chummy comfort her dying mum.
For Dympna it was a familiar scene that also hit home. She says: "As her mother was dying, Chummy lay down on the bed next to her and this struck a real chord with me. As I was watching it, I thought about some of the people that I have looked after at home.
"People are often afraid to do something like that because they are worried about a loved one's illness.
"With reassurance that their loved one is comfortable and not in pain, they are able to lie down next to them and give them a comforting hug.
"Moments like that stay with you.
"We can learn a lot from books but it is our patients and their loved ones that teach us the most about caring."
Dympna is such a big fan of the hit period drama that she has missed just one episode of the three series which have pulled in up to 10 million viewers.
Originally from the townland of Cabra, outside Newry, she was one of 10 children, of whom four went on to become nurses.
She says she knew from a young age that she wanted to be a nurse and follow in the footsteps of three of her older sisters.
After qualifying, she decided to specialise in midwifery and started her two years training in 1983 at the Royal Jubilee Maternity Hospital.
She then worked as a midwife for two years before leaving Northern Ireland for Australia where she realised her true calling was end of life nursing.
Dympna says: "I loved babies and thoroughly enjoyed being a midwife. It was wonderful bringing new life into the world and helping to prepare mums and dads for their first days as parents.
"Back then new mums stayed in hospital for five days and we taught them how to feed and bath and look after their babies and that was wonderful.
"But I also wanted to see a bit of the world which is why I went to Australia. When I started working in the nursing home it got me thinking more about dying and the care of the dying and, to be honest, people encouraged me to go into palliative care.
"I was very much moved by the whole process of dying and in 1989 I started to work in a hospice in Australia. From my very first day there it just felt right.
"Watching the last episode of Call the Midwife and seeing Chummy beside her dying mum's bed I just thought 'That's me and that's what real life is all about.'"
Dympna, who is in her 50s and lives alone, also lived in Canda for 20 years before returning home to Northern Ireland four years ago. She regards Canada as her second home and has been back twice to visit friends. "Travelling is my main hobby," she says. "Also, where I live in Rostrevor we have a beautiful forst and the mountains and the water and I like to spend a lot of time outdoors when I am not working. The quiet of the woods is just so peaceful." Now, after 25 years in palliative care – the last three spent nursing people in their own homes with Marie Curie – Dympna feels that death is still very much a taboo subject and our fear of it prevents us from making the proper preparations.
She says: "There is still a terrible fear of it and it's like any fear, when you face it, it makes it easier. I've often felt that if we put as much attention into preparing for death as we do for the arrival of a new baby, then patients and their families would be in a much better position at end of life.
"You're never going take away the emotional pain of dying, but you can help ease the fear and prepare patients and loved ones on what to expect every step of the way."
Dympna says that she has always been drawn to the spiritual needs of people as they approach death and prepare to die.
She explains: "It's not easy for people to approach the subject, it feels slightly unnatural and we are reluctant to have those conversations.
"But it's so important to talk about it, so that we can move through that journey in our life. We only have one chance to get it right."
Dympna says her job is always a subject of curiosity and she is continually being asked how she copes with nursing the dying.
She explains: "People think it is a terrible job and you find yourself trying to explain how worthwhile it is.
"I find every shift a challenge but it's so rewarding to have the time to offer patients and families the care and support they need and help prepare them for what to expect.
"It's always incredibly sad when someone is dying but, by helping them and their loved ones to come to a degree of acceptance, hopefully they can achieve a sense of peace in their final days of life."
Because it is her job to help people prepare for death she is always the strong professional which the dying person and their distressed family can lean on.
And while she does everything she can to ensure that the person in her care has what she describes as "a good death" it can also be a tough and emotional experience for Dympna too.
"In some ways I am going in prepared because I know the person is at the end of their life," she said.
"It's not like an intensive care nurse who is trying to save a life so in that respect I am prepared.
"If I can in any way make a difference to the person by making them physically more comfortable or providing emotional care or support for the family then that's what I try to do.
"When you know it has been a good death that makes it so incredibly worthwhile.
"For me a good death is pain free and peaceful and enabling someone to die where they want to be, in their own bed or at home surrounded by the people they want there.
"There is no doubt it is upsetting and of course it affects you. I do cry with some of my families and I'm not ashamed of those tears falling down."