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Spirit of NI Awards: A lifetime of devotion to sick children

Nurse has provided support in saddest of circumstances


Deirdre Armstrong pictured with Ian Henry, corporate responsibility director of Henry Brothers

Deirdre Armstrong pictured with Ian Henry, corporate responsibility director of Henry Brothers

Kevin Scott / Belfast Telegraph

Deirdre Armstrong

Deirdre Armstrong

Deirdre Armstrong at her nursing graduation

Deirdre Armstrong at her nursing graduation


Deirdre Armstrong pictured with Ian Henry, corporate responsibility director of Henry Brothers

An extraordinary nurse who went above and beyond for families in her care is the winner of our Spirit of Health Award sponsored by Henry Brothers.

Children’s palliative care nurse Deirdre Armstrong (59), a mum-of-three from Downpatrick, was devoted to bringing comfort to families as they face the worst type of loss — the death of a child.

Deirdre worked as a paediatric Macmillan clinical nurse specialist for 22 years before retiring in February of this year.

Unable to leave the profession completely after 40 years’ service, she continues to work part-time as a bank nurse.

During her nursing career Deirdre travelled all over Northern Ireland at all times of the day and night to provide care for very young children with terminal cancer.

Often the first point of contact for distressed parents, Deirdre has always been there to provide unwavering support when it was needed most, visiting children at holiday homes, during her own holidays and even at Christmas.

Admitting it was not an easy job, she tells us: “We would go out into the community and link the families of children with their local children’s community teams.

“Thankfully most children’s cancers can be treated very successfully now.

“Sadly though every year there are children who don’t survive.

“It is very difficult. Thankfully I was part of a big team through the hospital who are all very dedicated. Everyone wants the absolute best for every child and we all feel terribly upset when we lose one of our patients.

“It can be hard to deal with but you get through by supporting one another. While it is always very sad for us, it is nothing compared to what the family go through.”

Married to Alan, she has a grown-up family of three, Ruairi (31), Aisling (30) and Orla (26).

Deirdre has left her mark throughout her career, which started when she was just 17, training in the Royal Victoria Hospital.

Her early career was spent nursing in the children’s burns unit of the Royal — another challenging role. “That was very tough. Mostly it was children burnt as a result of an accident at home.”

In her 20s, her husband’s job saw them move to Manchester where they stayed for 12 years and started their own family.

There was a shock for the young couple when shortly after the birth of their first child Ruairi, it was discovered that he had sustained an injury in pregnancy and doctors predicted that he would have a lot of challenges both mentally and physically.

Thanks to his mum continually advocating for him and empowering him to reach his full potential, Ruairi has exceeded all expectations and is independent and working full-time.

Deirdre feels that having a child with special needs helped her to be even more empathetic in her nursing job. She recalls: “At the time I was working as a community children’s nurse with children who had complex needs and life-limiting conditions.

“I felt really drawn to caring for them. I set up a support group for special needs families in the local area which continued to meet after we left Manchester. My personal experience really played a part in that.” Before returning to Northern Ireland, Deirdre also volunteered one day a week in the local children’s hospice which gave her an interest in palliative care.

When she came home and saw the post of paediatric Macmillan clinical nurse specialist advertised, it seemed ready-made for her.

She applied and was delighted to get the job which she has carried out with devotion for the past 22 years.

Based at the children’s cancer unit in the Royal Victoria Hospital, she was one of only two Macmillan paediatric nurse specialists covering the whole of Northern Ireland. During her career she also got involved in research to develop nursing care in her field and spoke at international conferences advising on the best nursing methods for children suffering from cancer.

She has also lectured in Queen’s University and taught nurses and doctors how to deliver chemotherapy safely.

Her nomination sums her up: “Deirdre has provided this extraordinary care with a humble, demure and a kind heart. She is my superhero of health. She deserves recognition as the Spirit of Health for her devotion to sick children for many, many years.”

Deirdre says she was shocked to be recognised in our awards: “It is a huge surprise and I actually cried when I was told I was nominated. I feel very humbled and honoured.”

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