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Mums and daughters with the feelgood factor


Ahead of Mother's Day this Sunday we talk to three mums and daughters for whom cancer plays a role in their lives for different reasons, writes Una Brankin.

Watching my mum work as Marie Curie nurse prompted a career in palliative care

Heather Monteverde grew up with an inspiring role model in her mother, Ann, a former Marie Curie nurse and all-round Good Samaritan in her hometown of Magherafelt. Yet, as a young girl, Heather - now the head of Macmillan Services in Northern Ireland - had no intention of following in Ann's footsteps.

"I call myself 'the accidental nurse'," she quips. "Originally, I'd applied to study English in Edinburgh and got a place. I was head girl at Rainey Endowed Grammar and the whole focus there was on going to university.

"Mum never suggested nursing to me or tried to influence any of the six of us. As long as we did our best, what we chose was up to us. Nursing was never on my radar. I really don't know why, but one day I thought, 'I want to do nursing'. I just knew that it was the right thing to do.

"I'll never forget one of the teachers telling me I was wasting my education and that I'd end up mopping up blood and emptying bed pans for the rest of my life. How wrong she was.

"When I eventually went to university 13 or 14 years later to study part-time for a degree in nursing, she said: 'I always knew she was capable of better'. Ha!"

The sudden change of heart, in her final year at school, led to a rich and varied career in cancer care for Heather (55), who has three daughters, Giuliana (27), Sara (24) and Kate (20), with her husband Peter, a Peruvian of Italian descent. On leaving school, she trained in general and sick children's nursing, before becoming one of the first to specialise in oncology nursing, at Belvoir Park in Belfast.

"I remember vividly a man dying of cancer when I was a student nurse, and thinking, there has to be some better care than this," she recalls. "The seeds for oncology nursing were sown and I found my niche - I was one of the first nurses specialising in cancer care at the City for nine years, before I went into an educational role in the private sector, teaching nurses how to administer medication."

Back in the late Fifties, Ann had also trained as a nurse for sick children, but she was required to leave her job when she got married. Heather is the eldest of six raised on the busy family farm in Magherafelt, which Ann (77) helped to run, with her husband, George Johnson, who in his eighties. Always a caring, altruistic person, Ann eventually went back to nursing at night in the Mid-Ulster Hospital, as well as looking after her sister when she was in final stages of cancer.

"Mum was always very practical and busy - the epitome of the saying, 'if you want something done, ask a busy person," says Heather. "She baked scones and made jam for people and did what she could for fundraising in the community - she was one of those go-to people.

"Her faith's important to her and she has great compassion. That's the ethos we grew up in - you help others. So, even though I never planned to go into nursing, the influence was there in the background."

For Heather and Ann, Mother's Day is usually spent quietly.

"Cards and flowers are nice but practical support from day to day is more important than some flashy show," Heather concludes. "I know my own daughters can't always be here. They're not a bit interested in nursing but I wouldn't change my career for the world.

"Nursing is about compassion and skill - seeing the patient as a whole person, and not just with a label, diabetic or cancer, or whatever. And they're qualities my mother always had."

Beat breast cancer at 30, then helped her mum fight disease

Belfast’s Deputy Lord Mayor, Sonia Copeland, once thought she wouldn’t see another Mother’s Day, or live to see her small children grow up. But the former policewoman proved her doctors wrong when she beat aggressive breast cancer at the age of 30, and went on to live a full and active life in public service.

Now approaching 60, Sonia will be receiving Mother’s Day greetings at her Ballygowan home from her daughter Sara (30), who works for the Greater Village Regeneration Trust, and Matthew (28), a junior doctor based in the Ulster Hospital, where Sonia was treated. Although he was very young at the time, Matthew has a distinct memory of visiting his mother in hospital.

“I remember her saying goodbye to us, and then we were walking through the car park, holding Dad’s hand, and Mum was at the window with a drip stand, in her hospital gown, waving at us. I remember, later on, in primary school, thinking I wanted to be a doctor, but I didn’t think I was academically gifted enough because I was slow to read when I started school.”

Having won the gruelling battle against breast cancer, which had spread to her lymph nodes and required a mastectomy, Sonia wasn’t going to give up on Matthew’s reading problems.

“Summer after summer she worked with me and helped me perform better,” Matthew recalls. “She was always very supportive, through Lagan College and my medical training, too. I graduated last year; she’s always telling me how proud she is of me.

“I feel very lucky to have her, as I could have grown up without a mother, which would have been very difficult for us. I wouldn’t be where I am today without her.”

Above all, Matthew and Sara provided the focus for Sonia to live after her ex-husband, Michael (the former East Belfast MLA), overheard her consultant telling medical students she had only four weeks to live.

When she got over the initial shock, she made Michael promise to have the children receive an integrated education and began to plan her funeral.

But, against all odds, Sonia responded well to radiotherapy and chemotherapy, and, six weeks later, she was given the all-clear.

The cancer did not return but four to five years later, Sonia began to have problems with the silicon implant used in her breast reconstruction surgery. Around the same time, her mother, Anne, received her own frightening diagnosis.

“The implant was moving up my chest — I had a pain in my chest and it looked like I had three boobs!” Sonia recalls. “Then, Mum — she was 57 at the time — asked me to have a look at this lump she’d found in her breast, and I didn’t like the feel of it.

“She was diagnosed much quicker than I was, and she responded very well to her treatment. And I got her surgeon to repair my reconstruction. He did a great job.”

Now approaching 80, Anne has lived to see Sonia rise to public office within the Ulster Unionist Party — a role she combines with her work as a trained counsellor for the Marie Curie and Action Cancer charities. And she was as chuffed as Sonia to see her grandson graduate last year as a doctor, the first in the family, and to become great-grandmother to Sara’s son Harrison (6). “He’s my whole world,” says his granny Sonia.

“I remember Mum saying, ‘I’m glad you had it (cancer) first — I don’t think I’d have got through it if you hadn’t’. She was one of the people around me who helped out so much with the children when I had cancer,” Sonia explains. 

“I see my work with Marie Curie and Action Cancer as my way of giving back. It’s challenging but if I can help anyone find a way of coping, and helping them by talking it through, that’s the main thing.”

With both parents nurses, caring for the sick runs in the family now 

The Finn family is full of nurses. Claire (35) works in critical care at Altnagelvin Hospital, while her mother Anne (62), after a long career in surgical and palliative nursing, is now a co-lead co-ordinator of advanced communication skills training in NI for medics.

Her father, Alan Corry Finn, MBE, is a former director of Nursing, having retired only last year. And even Claire’s four-year-old daughter, Hope, is showing signs of following in the Londonderry clan’s close-knit footsteps.

“She goes around with a plaster and a stethoscope listening to peoples’ hearts,” her grandmother Anne laughs.

“She’s so caring. It’s funny, when Claire was born on March 9, 1986, the midwife held her up to me and said: ‘Here’s the nurse!’.

 “I’d had a little boy, Stewart, 18 months earlier. He’s the communications officer for the MS Society now.”

Originally from Belfast, Anne and Alan met while training in the Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast in 1974, marrying in 1978. The couple worked long, sometimes traumatic hours, attending to the victims of shootings and bombing, and they struggled financially in the beginning.

After the children were born, Anne went part-time at the Ulster Hospital and went on to specialise in palliative care in the late 1980s after caring for her aunt in the final stages of lung cancer. A person of faith, Anne’s belief in God has been strengthened by nursing the dying and witnessing some near-death experiences in which the patient described a glimpse into the afterlife.

Claire has had similar experiences working in the ICU in Altnagelvin.

“I’m around death quite a lot and see people looking for God in that situation,” she says. “You become a big part of the patient’s and the entire family’s journey; you become a shoulder to cry on and someone for them to talk to and to voice their fears to.

“That’s why communication skills are so important — I always know who has been trained by Mum and who hasn’t. And when I watch what unfolds, even when there is suffering in the process, I can see there is so much more to life than this.”

Having seen her parents having to work extremely hard for insufficient salaries, after finishing her A-Levels at Grosvenor Grammar School in Belfast, Claire decided to study psychology at Dundee University.

But she changed her mind when she became friendly with a student nurse and realised she wanted to do the same course.

“When I phoned home to tell my parents, Mum said: ‘Finally!’ She’s said before I would make a good nurse. They were excited for me. They told me about all the opportunities in nursing and that I’d never be without a job, and that I’d have such job satisfaction, and of course she was right.

“I worked in community, orthopaedic and neurosurgical, and I’ve worked in America, where nursing is more respected and far better paid. But it is a vocation, really. I think we are set apart for it.”

Anne agrees. “It was tough in the beginning, but God’s been good to us,” she concludes. “I wouldn’t change a thing.”

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