Not many of us can say that at the age of four we knew what we wanted to do for the rest of our lives. Cathy Glass, however, is one of the people who knew exactly that.
Before she even started school, Cathy had a nurse’s outfit which she played in. Roll on the years and Cathy has been honoured with an MBE for her successes in a career which has seen her rise from trainee nurse to unit manager of the Trauma and Orthopedic Unit at Altnagelvin Hospital.
“Believe it or not, I knew even back then,” she laughs.
That was more than 30 years ago, but Cathy still has as big a passion for nursing as she did back then.
She began her nursing training aged 17 at Belfast’s City Hospital.
“It was very different at that stage,” says Cathy. “There were no university qualifications when I did my training and you were very much on the ward.
“The emphasis was very much on the practice and I took my lead from a lot of those nurses who were there day in, day out, doing an amazing job. My first placement was in Ward 21 which was the Care of the Elderly ward at the City Hospital. Again, that was a very different setting back then compared to what it is now. There were patients who were there long-term whereas now a lot of those patients would probably be in nursing homes.”
When the time came for Cathy to choose her specialism, she knew straight away what she wanted to focus on.
“I went to the fracture ward at the City Hospital,” she recalls. “We were working very closely with the A&E department, it was a great place to learn.”
Even in those days, a long way from our current recession. Cathy says job security wasn’t a given.
“We were on monthly contracts so you were working month to month and hoping for the best,” she says.
Cathy has fond memories of her time in the Fracture Ward at the City Hospital.
Cathy left the City for a new role at Altnagelvin in 1995. She says she intended to stay “three or four years”. More than 15 years later, she’s still there.
“Altnagelvin was so welcoming, and a lovely working environment. It really was just very friendly and I was happy here really quickly. I learned so much here too, working with some great people down through the years.
“Altnagelvin just had a lovely feel to it as a place to work. I always remember in my earliest days here as a nurse, there was one Friday afternoon where I was just clearing up and a lady came and stood at the doorway and started talking to me. At that time I didn’t recognise her but then I found out it was Stella Burnside, who was the hospital Chief Executive at that time.
“I think, as a workplace, there was just a lot of accessibility between staff at all levels, and that was something I really liked.”
Cathy also refers to the close friendships formed by staff on the ground in Altnagelvin and other hospitals.
“There’s something different about working in a clinical environment. People don’t just work together, they also look out for each other. There’s a lot of fun and laughter, and a lot of supporting each other through very tough times.”
As a nurse who has worked in trauma situations most of her career, Cathy knows only too well what those tough times can mean.
She helped treat the injured in the aftermath of the Shankill and Omagh bombings and has dealt with people who have come into contact with her during some of the most traumatic times of their lives.
Recalling the Omagh tragedy, the patients of that day are foremost in Cathy’s mind.
“They were just brilliant patients and we had a brilliant team but it was a day none of us will ever forget,” she says.
“That day I watched staff members who I’d never seen get stressed, become stressed. There was a real sense of responsibility felt by everyone who was there that day. To a certain extent, the best thing you can do is try and put your own emotions aside and do the best job you can for the patients, but it’s not always easy in those situations.”
When Cathy took the decision to move out of the ward, she did so with a heavy heart, but secure in the knowledge that she could still try and make a difference in the lives of patients in a senior management role.
“There were huge pressures in the role when I first started,” says Cathy.
“There were big delays and a lot of media coverage at the time about the delays being experienced by patients at the fracture clinic.
“I’d been in the wards when we were treating patients coming to us who had been lying in another ward for days on end and it was tough seeing that. I decided that if I could I’d like to be in a role where I could influence a change in those lists.
Cathy has done more than just influence a change; she’s succeeded in turning negative headlines into positive ones. In the course of the past year her staff have received awards for developing excellent standards of care for patients with dementia and had national recognition of very low mortality rates for patients following hip fracture.
All this, she emphasises, is achieved through their expertise and care.
“My role would be impossible if I didn’t have the team around me that I do. They’ve been absolutely fantastic from day one.
“It is an honour to lead a team who are so passionate about their roles and about ensuring patients’ experiences are of the highest quality despite often working in challenging situations.”
Cathy also paid tribute to her husband George and daughter Marnie who she says have supported her throughout her entire career.
“They’ve been brilliant. I’d be the first to admit that at times I could have a better work/life balance, but they’ve always been very supportive.”
As for the MBE, Cathy reckons she’s got over the shock, but she’s still modest about the honour.
“The way I see it is that I got an award for doing my job,” she says.
“But after being off with ill health it gave me a real boost to know that people regarded me so highly and it has given me a huge lift personally, and made the returning to work process much easier.”