At the age of just 17, Paula Cunningham boarded a bus in Enniskillen and set off for a new life in Derry - where she would begin her nurse training.
It was 1976 and Derry felt like a world away from her Co. Fermanagh home town were Paula had grown up as the eldest of three girls. “I think there was that nervousness about coming here,” she told the ‘Journal’ this week.
“The Troubles were still ongoing. We had been blessed at that stage in Enniskillen - the Enniskillen bomb hadn’t happened then - and I suppose we were quite sheltered from big city life and the worst of the Troubles.
“It was quite eerie coming into Foyle Street and seeing the army checkpoints. It felt like a different world.”
Paula settled into her quarters at the old City and County Hospital (where Clarendon Manor now stands) and each day she and her fellow students would be bussed across to the School of Nursing at the old St. Columb’s Hospital - which was based in the grounds of St. Columb’s Park.
“When we started working on the wards at Altnagelvin, we moved to the nurses’ home there so I suppose we were very much cossetted. “Of course if we wanted to go out at night time we were still conscious of what was going on - where we could go to and that sort of thing. But we had good times. We had a great social life in those days. We could make a pound stretch very far.”
From the Castle Bar to the Point Inn and nights at Kelly’s in Portrush - the trainee nurses enjoyed forging new friendships together and enjoyed a new found freedom. “We thumbed lifts,” Paula revealed. “It was safe enough in those days to do that and when you were training as a nurse you were held in a certain esteem in this city. You were treated a little differently.”
But of course those early years were not all about nights out and socialising. Paula worked hard, qualifying in 1972 and finding herself Ward Sister just three years later.
The work was tough - and as the peak of the Troubles took hold Paula witnessed some sights that you simply never forget. “I suppose you will carry the memories of certain patients with you,” she said. “You will carry the memories of certain atrocities - Droppin’ Well, Enniskillen, more recently Omagh, with you always.
“And when it starts to hit people you know - that brought it all home. When the bomb went off in Enniskillen, I knew those people - my father’s best friend was killed in that bomb. Marie Wilson was a neighbour of mine for years. While before I could remain a little distanced from it - as if I wasn’t really part of it - suddenly somebody you knew would come in, or you heard of someone who had been killed and it would start to become more real.”
In those dark days Paula often found herself at the bedside of those coping with life altering injuries. She watched dignitaries come and go - and saw the media hype which followed each atrocity - and then she, and her colleagues dealt with the real aftermath. “They (dignitaries) came and went and it was the nurses and the doctors in the hospital who were left to pick up the pieces of those people’s lives and try and help them put them back together again. - to ensure they could get back to health in whatever capacity they could,” she said.
It was the support system in the hospital, and the friendships she had forged from the age of 17, which got Paula through those difficult times.
“We had good fun - it was the release that we needed. And due to what we saw, what we did, there were very long standing friendships forged over the years.
“Doctors may have come and gone but the nurses didn’t turn over as quickly because a lot of the people came to the city, married and settled here. We had a very static nursing staff - people were here for years,
“We danced together, laughed together, cried together and worked together,” she said.
And indeed Paula credits her colleagues - who she refers to as her ‘work family’ with helping her get through unspeakable tragedy when her husband Kevin - a man she describes as ‘the love of her life’ took his own life seven years after they were married.
“I am not the first it has happened to and I won’t be the last, unfortunately. But he was the love of my life - and my children’s father and the years we had together were perfect years.
“Kevin was a part of my life and he will always be a part of my life. He was a great man. So laidback he was almost horizontal - well known in the town and the city. Ardmore through and through and Derry through and through. And it is just unfortunate how his illness took hold - and unfortunately that was the only way he thought of getting out.”
When Kevin took his life, he left not only Paula behind but their two young children. Lauren (now 21) and Katie (who turns 17 tomorrow).
It was a hugely difficult time. “From he died, my babysitter, Pat Galbraith became my stalwart and my mother was my stalwart and my family here were amazing, through all those years. But it was also the support of those around me at work which gave me the strength to get up each day and carry on.
Kindness isn’t one big thing - it’s a whole lot of wee small things. That is what this hospital and the staff here have taught me. Those random acts of kindness are the kind of things that get you through it.”
Working at the hospital - and seeing all of life’s experiences played out each day - has taught her many things.
“That’s life - you see the tragedy of lives portrayed over there in that hospital every day. You see the inner strength that is in people - and that never ceases to amaze me.
“I have seen colleagues here who have gone through serious illness who bounce back. The resilience that there is in people and the strength of the human spirit never ceases to amaze me.”
On a professional level Paula has made - and will leave - a long and lasting legacy. She left ‘hands on’ nursing in 1992 when she became involved in the first assessment of nursing standards across the then Western Board area.
Following that extensive two and a half year project she was tasked with rolling out new technology to allow nurses to keep better records. That in itself provided its own challenges - with many older nursing staff in particular having never before seen a computer.
“You know for a lot of us, when we were at school, computers were something that A Level additional maths students used and they were huge big things that were locked away in a room. We never saw them as actually being part and parcel of the nursing care vocation.
“We had very, very senior people here who had never seen a computer. Their minds were computers, they were more than capable but then we had to ask them to learn how to use them and they were sitting beside people who maybe had just come out of school and who were maybe more used to using them. We had to be very sensitive to that.
Paula continued to move up the ladder and, as Head of Service Planning she has played a role in many of the major changes to the Altnagelvin hospital site.
”My mantra is that the only reason that we are here is to provide care for patients. It doesn’t matter whether you are the chief executive or the porter at the front desk. We are all here for one reason,” she said.
Now, as she heads off to her retirement at the sprightly age of 55 she hopes the next chapter of her life will be just as exciting as the last.