The Sunday Interview - Maureen Howie - St. John Ambulance

Dr. Maureen Howie, pictured at her Eglinton home this week. DER5013JM064
Dr. Maureen Howie, pictured at her Eglinton home this week. DER5013JM064

Joining St. John Ambulance when she was a teenager made Dr. Maureen Howie want to be a doctor.

Maureen, whose maiden name is Howie is married to Dr. Thomas Craig and they live in Eglinton. Maureen is now 69 years-old and despite having retired as a doctor, she has the same fervour and burning admiration for the organisation and last month St. John Ambulance bestowed upon her the prestigious title of Dame.

Maureen has been a member of St. John Ambulance for 52 years and tomorrow she will be accorded a mayoral reception with Derry’s First Citizen, Councillor Martin Reilly, in his chambers in the Guildhall.

“It’s a great honour. I am delighted that the organisation is getting the recognition it deserves. The work the volunteers do is second to none,” said Maureen.

Maureen was born in 1944 and reared in Belfast. She was the oldest of four children and her father, Frank Howie, was a lecturer at Lisburn Technical College and her mother, Beryl, was a hairdresser before becoming a full-time housewife.

“My dad came from a real working class family on the Shankill Road. His parents had to save and save in order to make sure he got an education.

“My dad had a brother but his parents could only afford to pay for one education.

“Dad always used to say he was interested in studying medicine but his parents couldn’t afford to send him to medical school but he did get a degree in chemistry.

“I suppose it was for the best because my dad most certainly didn’t have a doctor’s temperament,” laughed Maureen.

Frank Howie made sure his children put their education at the very top of their priorities and his philosophy certainly paid off. Three out of his four children, including Maureen, went on to become doctors and the remaining child went on to work in the nursing sector.

“Dad always used to say that he didn’t have any money to leave us but the one thing he could do is help us get an education and the rest was up to us,” smiled Maureen.

School was where Maureen excelled. Despite being made stand outside the classroom on more than one occasion for talking she went on to attain top marks in Biology, Chemistry, Physics and Mathematics.

“I really enjoyed school but between you and me, I think I enjoyed talking to my friends more,” she joked.

“Looking back now, I must have been academic because I got good results and I also managed to secure a place studying Medicine at Queen’s University, Belfast (QUB).”

When Maureen enrolled at QUB it was the late 1960s and the university only let women make up 20 per cent of their annual quota of new students studying Medicine.

“That’s just the way things were back then but I was determined to be doctor - it was what I wanted to do from when I was a young girl.”

It was her involvement in St. John Ambulance that made Maureen want to become a doctor. She might have only been in her mid teens but helping out at local hospitals convinced her that caring for others was what she wanted to do.

“I was part of a St. John Ambulance division in Belfast and I remember we used to think we were the the bee’s knees when we went to the local hospitals to assist with things like taking someone’s blood pressure.

“All joking aside though. It was the St. John Ambulance that put me on the path to becoming a doctor. They showed me that not only did I need the knowledge but I had to be able to care for people in a way that made them feel at ease.”

Studying Medicine at QUB was a six year course but in her fourth year, Maureen and her fellow students, were given the chance to go and work in a hospital in Nigeria for a few months.

“The Nigerian Civil War broke out when we were out there working but the hospital we were in was in the middle of nowhere which meant we saw and knew nothing of what was happening.

“Working in Nigeria was a real eye opener for me because it showed me what a doctor had to be capable of when he or she didn’t have all the modern equipment to rely on.

“Looking back now, it was so primitive. The generator we used for electricity would stop working at 9pm every night. This made trying to find a vein in the arm of a black person at night virtually impossible.

“I also remember assisting the surgeon with an autologous blood transfusion [a medical procedure involving recovering blood lost during surgery and re-infusing it into the patient].

“The patient was a woman and she was losing a lot of blood. I had to use a sterile jar and collect the blood she was losing, then pass it through a muslin cloth and re-infuse it into her.

“Nowadays there is equipment that costs thousands of pounds that allows you do to autologous blood transfusion but in Nigeria in 1966 all we had was a piece of tubing, a sterile container and a piece of muslin cloth to catch any clots - the woman survived.”

After returning to Belfast, Maureen went to work as a doctor in Altnagelvin in 1968, later specialising in anaesthesia and she worked in the hospital until her retirement in 2004.

“I also did a lot of working with family planning clinics. That was very enjoyable and satisfying part of my career.”

All throughout her time working in Altnagelvin and working and teaching family planning clinics, Maureen kept up her involvement with St. John Ambulance. When then President of the Northern Ireland St. John Ambulance retired in 2011, Maureen became his successor and she’s been continuing with that role ever since.

“I know I am 69 but I am enjoying what I do. I think St. John Ambulance is very important and I would love to see the day that first aid is included in the school curriculum,

“I remember attending an open session for St. John Ambulance where little children were able to come in and learn about first aid. There was this one little fella. He couldn’t have been more than eight and he was able to turn his pal on his side and administer first aid. I remember thinking, there are adults who would not be able to do what he does.”

Maureen and Thomas have three children; Anne, Elizabeth and Katherine and five grandchildren.