As a trainee nurse in Altnagelvin Hospital in 1981, Siobhan Glenn openly admits being petrified during her first hours on the ward.
“I was just a wee girl and I knew nothing about life. I had it all to learn,” she smiles, contemplating her final day at work ahead of her retirement next week after 36 years of nursing.
Under the strict supervision of the matrons and sisters, Siobhan and her contemporaries learned every aspect of the job while they worked and it was that practical education which Siobhan says has remained with her ever since.
In her current role as Ward Manager, on the first floor of Derry’s state of the art North West Cancer Centre, the surroundings are a far cry from those Siobhan experienced in her first shifts in all those years ago.
“It was very different back then,” she laughs, referring to the popular television drama ‘Call the Midwife.’
“We wore the aprons, the belts and the big hats and the one thing you had to remember was to listen to the matron. The matron was the boss and you did what you were told. The matrons and sisters were great mentors and to this day I still remember what they taught me and I’ve always used what I was given during my time on the wards.”
The 1980’ represented the dark ages in the nursing profession, as Siobhan explains:
“The technology now is one of the biggest differences. We didn’t have the internet so we had to consult books and journals for everything. We’d wait weeks at times for certain journals to arrive because you just had to wait until they were posted. Now, everything is at the touch of a button, so that’s great.”
Siobhan said she’s pleased that nursing has evolved in recent years and that, ultimately, those changes have led to better patient experiences and better recognition for the nursing profession.
“These days the opinion of the entire team is valued,” she declares.
“ As a nurse in the early days our opinion didn’t really count, but the input of nurses coming into the profession now is more valued and that’s fantastic. We are in a better position to be advocates for our patients because the consultants listen to us and they recognise that we are the people who spend the most time with patients. They are fully aware that we’re the people who are with them at their bedside at 3am and we’re with them on a daily basis.”
Siobhan spent a significant amount of her career in the Medical and Surgical awards at Altnagelvin Hospital, but says she always had an interest in palliative care. It was that interest which ultimatelyguided her to her current role as one of the most senior staff members in the North West Cancer.
Indeed, Siobhan was consulted by architects when designs were being finalised for the fabulous facility which serves patients from Derry and Donegal. She admits that she’s still overwhelmed with what she sees around her.
“They’ve given us everything we asked for and more,” Siobhan smiled as we made our way onto the stunning roof top garden at the centre which is a haven of tranquility for patients and their families.
Some patients, in the final days of their lives, have found great peace in this garden, Siobhan confirms.
A different person to the quiet teenager who took her first steps tentatively onto the wards as a trainee, Siobhan Glenn has since seen and learned about life - and death.
“We’re all ‘criers’ in here,” she claimed, referring to herself and her colleagues at the Cancer Centre.
“There are times when it’s tough and that’s when we are able, as staff, to talk to and support one another. We often have a good cry together.”
She heaped praise, in particular, on consultant, Dr. Feargal McNicholl for taking on board the concerns of nursing staff in this area.
“He has really gone above and beyond and was instrumental in getting additional support and psychology support for nurses. That was a massive change for everyone.”
Siobhan is also full of admiration for the younger staff at the centre who, she claims, are the bright future of care in the North West.
“We have the most amazing young team. They are so gifted and skilled and knowledgeable. I didn’t know half as much as them at their age,” she laughs.
“They are fantastic at what they do and that’s so important and I believe it’s vital that they hear that too. When a patient is going through the most difficult of times, you only have one opportuntity to make that as comfortable as possible for the patient and their family. If that experience isn’t as dignifed as it should be, that person’s family will be left with those memories forever and that’s why it’s so very, very important to get it right.
“That’s why I praise our nurses when they do something important. I tell them when they make a difference. It’s important that they know that. They are such amazing people and all of us are only as good as the team we are a part of.”
Siobhan will no longer be part of her work team after Tuesday next, when she clocks out of Altnagelvin Hospital for the final time.
From her time as a trainee, to the days she and others watched as the new facilities in the hospital’s South Wing took shape, and ultimately to when she greeted royalty at the Cancer Centre’s official opening, she has had her work family by her side.
She refers affectionately to her fellow “musketeers” Marie McLaughlin and Orla Hamilton and Ward Sister Shauna McDermott, who is part of the next generation of nurses in the North West Cancer Unit.
“What we have here is amazing,” said Siobhan.
“But it’s up to the next troop of people coming behind to always keep striving for something better. We can never be complacent.”
As for Siobhan, while she waves goodbye to her work family, her own family including her husbandy Micky and her four children and four grandchildren will be seeing much more of her.
“I feel like I’ve done my time here and now all I want is to enjoy a mundane life,” she laughs.
“I can’t wait to do the school run and see my grandchildren every day.
“I’ll take more holidays, and for once, I won’t be thinking about what shifts I’m on at Christmas!”