Sister Joy Doherty, from Eglinton in the city, retired officially from her post in Altnagelvin last month, with her staff holding a tea-party in her honour a few weeks later and planning a special dinner dance in the New Year. As she settles into retirement, Joy speaks to the ‘Derry Journal’ about a long and illustrious career in nursing and the many medical advances she has witnessed along the way.
Joy began her training at the Altnagelvin School of Nursing from September 1973, and qualified as a state-registered nurse (SRN) in October 1976. “I received a first class training, which could take me anywhere in the world,” she reflects.
“My first Matron was actually ex-army. She had exceptionally high standards and expected the same of her staff. Patients always came first - nursing care, cleanliness, professionalism, respect and dignity were paramount - as they are today.”
Joy was fortunate enough to be allocated to every ward and department in Altnagelvin Hospital, as well as doing community care in both the Waterside and St. Columb’s Hospital.
“During those training years, the Troubles were at their height,” she remembers. “I gained invaluable experience nursing people with gunshot wounds, kneecappings, bomb blast injuries all other types of emergencies and patients booked for surgery. As a third year student, I was frequently involved in transferring critically ill patients to Belfast too, travelling up with them in the ambulance.”
Despite the conflict unfolding around them, those in the medical profession and those training carried out their duties with pride and passion. “There was a great camaraderie in those days. Morale was high among the staff, and the staff and students supported each other. Mind you, we worked long shifts! And we were discouraged from going into the city in case we were caught up in a bomb scare and were not able to be back on duty for 5pm! Student nurses had very few rights in those days, but in spite of all that there was a great relationship between all the staff.”
Upon qualifying, nurses were expected to stay at Altnagelvin for six to twelve months before moving on. Joy fondly remembers receiving her nurses badge.
“When the Matron presented us with our Altnagelvin Hospital badge, we were told to wear it with pride and I have worn mine with pride now for the last 35 years,” she says.
But Joy soon said farewell to Altnagelvin and to Derry as she embarked on a new challenge.
“Next, I went to Edinburgh to undergo midwifery training. I really enjoyed that and made many friends there, indeed, I met my best friend whilst there. I staffed night-duty for years, working eight nights on and six nights off. I knew I wasn’t going to make a career as a midwife, though, and I applied to the Combined Intensive Care and Management Course in Guy’s Hospital in London, where my mum had been a nurse herself during World War Two. She had often told me of the Blitz and having to wear gasmasks at work - we only thought we had it tough!
“I remained in London for four years and gained a wealth of experience. I met patients of every colour, creed and class, from members of Royalty to the marginalised society. I worked in both private and NHS hospitals and cared for people in their own homes. I also nursed a Baron of the Realm in the Dorchester Hotel, so I must say I really have met some very interesting people! From those in showbiz to the residents of cardboard city who also had their stories to tell.”
Joy also had the pleasure of meeting Dr Majdi Yacoub, a renowned cardiac surgeon, during her tenure in London.
“While I was nursing one of his patients in intensive care, I could see him looking at my hospital badge and he asked me where I trained. I told him in Altnagelvin Hospital, Northern Ireland. Of course, he had difficulty pronouncing the name and then I explained the meaning of the name Altnagelvin, which means ‘Hill of the Sparrows’. But he told me that the Ireland had produced some of the best trained nurses in the world - what a great compliment coming from such a eminent surgeon!”
Eventually, Joy returned to her hometown. “Although I loved all the glitz and the glamour of London, I missed sailing with my brothers and cousins back home! Whenever the Sister’s position in Gynaecology was advertised, I applied and was successful. I took up my position in Altnagelvin on August 1, 1984, and remained there ever since.”
Sister Joy admits she spent some of the happiest years of her career on the gynae ward in Altnagelvin. “I witnessed and experienced many wonderful advances in those years; labour-saving devices, variable height beds, drip counters, where we once had to count the drips per minute with our watch, and computerisation. Diagnostic equipment has improved too, of course, with CT and MRI scanners coming in and improving diagnoses, as well as clot-busting drugs, statins and some wonderful medication. We have also seen the advent of Laparoscopic surgery and much better education for nurses, which is now a degree course up to Masters level, and midwifery-led units - the list goes on and on - that’s just the tip of the iceberg!
“I have worked with some wonderful staff; from professional, medical, nursing, chaplains, catering, cleaning, portering staff and laundry staff. Special thanks have to go to my girls - my girls were my nurses in the ward - and the support they have given me as their ward manager and also on a personal level when I was a patient myself. I am indebted to them and also to medical staff for all their fantastic treatment and care.
“I have been privileged to share in their happy times and their sad times and I can truly say I had a team of the most dedicated, competent, professional caring staff that any ward manager anywhere could wish for,” she beams with pride. “I know I’m leaving the gynae ward and the clinic in good hands. I have instilled the standards that have held me in good stead over the years to my staff and we never allowed these standards to slip.”
As one of the last remaining nurses to wear the traditional uniform of old, Sister Joy represents the last of a dying breed.
“The time has come for me to take of my hat for the last time and relegate it to a glass case for posterity, for I am the last sister in Altnagelvin to have worn a hat, one of the last in Northern Ireland and possibly one of the last in the UK to wear one - so I really am the end of an era! But I wore my uniform and hat and badge with such pride. I hope I’ll be remembered for being a ‘real’ nurse, as one little girl once described me when she saw me in the hospital!”
“I’m sad leaving a career I loved so much,” Sister Joy adds. “But I’m looking forward to free time and being able to pursue my interests and hobbies.”