At just 18 years of age Geraldine Hillick (nee Ellis) left her Creggan home and moved into the nurses’ home at Altnagelvin Hospital to begin three years of training to earn her coveted ‘blue stripe’ which would signal she was a fully qualified registered nurse.
Forty one years later, Geraldine is Director of Acute Medical Services in the Western Trust and has enjoyed a career she herself describes as “amazing”. She has seen the best in people and the worst that this country has offered us over its turbulent past.
She has helped launch pioneering protocols for care throughout the Trust area - protocols which are now deemed to have set an example to the rest of the world. And she has worked with the “best staff and the best patients” she could have wished for.
Recalling those first days, Geraldine said: “You had to move into the nurses’ home in those days - so even though my mammy and daddy were just across the bridge I had that excited feeling - that I was moving out of home.”
Beginning eight weeks of intensive classroom learning before moving onto the wards, Geraldine remembers her first pay packet was just £45 for a month’s work - out of which she had to pay for her accommodation.
Having been a member of the Knights of Malta from the age of 11, Geraldine had always wanted to go into the nursing profession - and the hands on approach suited her.
“The real learning was done on the wards - with your mentors and your teachers who were always the staff nurses and the ward sisters. They taught you. You learned more on the ward than in any classroom.”
The first ward Geraldine was assigned to was Ward 7 - the surgical ward. And from the first time she set foot through the doors, she knew she had found her dream career. “I loved it from the first day I went in there. I loved the patients - loved working with people, loved talking to people and you saw the satisfaction from working with people. You saw patients get better or provided end of life care - you saw immediately how you could help.”
After three years of training, Geraldine finally qualified and began a 12 year stint on the medical ward - a place where she saw the best and worst of this city and all we had to offer.
“I remember the Droppin Well bomb, remember shootings, punishment beatings, tarring and feathering. But you treated everybody the same - no matter what. If they needed surgery, they got surgery. If they needed a cup of tea, they got a cup of tea. Everyone was equal. We never made any differences. We did our best to make people well again.”
There are occasions and people Geraldine will never forget. She found it particularly difficult to deal with the death of young people, or with suicides. “Things could be tough - losing young people to cancer was always tough, suicides were tough. You don’t become immune to it, but you learn to cope with it. But there is one young fella, 23 years old, who died of lymphoma. I will never forget him. I still see him to this day. I could still cry thinking of him now.”
For several years Geraldine combined her busy shifts on the wards with raising her family - often working night-shifts because they allowed her more time with her children.
She admits she would not have been able to do it without the support of her mother, Nancy, or her husband Eugene.
In 1987 however, Geraldine made the decision to train as a district nurse and after travelling to Belfast every day for a year to earn her qualification she took up a post in the county where she said she always received a warm welcome.”
“I think I put on about half a stone in those first six months,” she laughed. “ Every house I went in to I was fed - cups of tea and home baked goodies.
“I felt such a part of the community.”
Later moving to work as district nurse in the city, Geraldine also worked as a Marie Curie nurse - a job she described as “very special indeed”.
“That was lovely - nice and special. You could do hands on care and make them comfortable for those last couple of nights of their life. I was very privileged.
“People told you things that they perhaps never told anyone else.”
While Geraldine cherished her work with patients close to the end of their lives, when cancer claimed her own mother at the age of just 65, she struggled with her loss.
“I always wondered if I could have done something. As a nurse - I asked myself - what did I do? What did I miss? Could I have made a difference?” Geraldine said.
Around the same time, in 1992 a very unexpected turn of events led to Geraldine changing direction in her career - something she had never thought she would do. “I developed an allergy to latex and was really quite ill.
“I had to come out of nursing. I never thought that would happen but sometimes things come along which change the direction in which you are going.”
Geraldine moved into management, slowly but steadily working her way up the career ladder - from management in the community through to working in the Trust.
At each stage she has implemented key new initiatives but admits she often has had to make difficult decisions - and those are things she has struggled with at times.
“Money is an issue - much as we would like to always have the money there, we just don’t.
“And at times difficult and emotional decisions have had to be made.”
But there are more positives than negatives. Geraldine is proud of what she and her Trust colleagues have achieved.
She describes overseeing the opening of the new South West Acute Hospital in Fermanagh last year as one of the highpoints of her life.
But her heart will always remain close to home.”On the day I was appointed Director of Acute Medical Services I remember - walking across to that hospital and looking up and thinking ‘Am I in charge of this? What have I done?’,” she laughed.
“But there is something about Altnagelvin. I started here. I came through the door when I was 18.
“It was my first home away from home. There were so many people who taught me something. Some nurses.
“Some doctors. Some patients.
“Everyone has left me with something new learned.”
When Geraldine finally retires next month she says she will “need two boxes of tissues to get through the day” - but she is looking forward to enjoying a long, happy and healthy retirement and spending more time with her six grown up children and four grandchildren.
“I will miss it - I have always been here,” she said.