Belfast Telegraph

Intensive care veteran Carmel Francis reflects on ‘dreadful’ days of Troubles and 40 years on the nursing front line

By Sophie Inge

An intensive care nurse who treated many victims of the Troubles is finally hanging up her uniform - after 40 years in the job.

Senior staff nurse Carmel Francis (57) worked her last shift on Wednesday night at the Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast. Her colleagues marked her retirement by presenting her with a trolley-load of fine foods and other treats.

"It was an extremely busy shift," she told the Belfast Telegraph. "I was working right up to the end."

Carmel, who was brought up in Moy, Co Tyrone, had wanted to be a nurse for as long as she could remember.

"One of the happiest days of my life was the day Santa brought me a nurse's uniform when I was about five," she said.

"I come from a big family with 15 siblings and used to practise on them all the time."

In 1976, at the age of 17, Carmel completed her nursing training and started work at the Royal Victoria Hospital's intensive care unit the very next day.

During her career she would go on to treat many victims of the Troubles, including the Omagh bombing.

"It was all pretty horrible, because you didn't really know what was going to come through the door," Carmel said.

"It could have been anybody, perhaps your neighbour who had been injured in a bomb or gun attack. And on many occasions, it was people that I knew.

"It was dreadful. But you just had to put your professional hat on and get on with the job."

Tragically, a fellow nurse at the Royal - Marie Wilson - was killed in the Enniskillen bombing in 1987.

In the early 1980s, Carmel moved to London, where she worked at Chelsea and Westminster Hospital for 18 months.

Six months after her arrival in the city, an IRA car bomb exploded outside Harrods department store, killing six and wounding 90.

Carmel, who was on holiday in Northern Ireland on the day of the bombing, returned a few days later to help take care of the victims.

Throughout her career, she's treated plenty of famous - and infamous - people, although for confidentiality reasons she can't go into detail.

"But you don't judge. You're just there to treat and look after people," she said.

Over the course of 40 years, she's seen the profession change beyond recognition.

"Many of the patients we treat today simply wouldn't have survived back then," she said.

"Today, for example, we do dialysis and we have different ways of ventilating patients who are critically ill.

"And we used to write everything down, whereas now we use a computer."

Carmel says that she was never tempted to go into management, preferring instead to work directly with patients and their families.

Despite being witness to the aftermath of some of the most harrowing incidents in modern times, she insists that she doesn't regret a single day.

"It's been a fantastic career and I would encourage any young person to do it," she said.

For her, though, it feels like the right time to move on.

"I was fed up with working Christmases and wanted more choice over my life - over what I do and when I do it," Carmel added.

To mark the first day of her retirement, her husband David took her out for a celebratory breakfast at her favourite restaurant, Cafe Conor in Belfast.

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