He was our daddy... our true protector

Michael McNaught (81), a retired ambulance man, passed away in December of last year. He died after battling pulmonary fibrosis. The very same day, his wife, Ruby, was diagnosed with secondary lung cancer. Their daughter, Rhonda Hutchman, says it’s been an emotional time for the family. In this wonderfully poignant article, she reflects on the past few months and explains why her father was a true hero...

Friday, 21st May 2021, 2:49 pm
The late Michael McNaught.

Our world was about to change forever. In March 2020, the world as we knew it died, writes Rhonda Hutchman.

A few months earlier, we’d heard the first reports of a previously unknown virus behind a number of pneumonia cases in a city in eastern China. What started as an epidemic limited to China had now become a global pandemic.

We were told to stay/work at home, where possible, and protect our most vulnerable. No one knew what to expect, how long it would last, how it would affect us as families or how we would manage our mental/emotional and physical state.

Michael with his daughter, Rhonda.

Our homes became fortresses to retreat to. We stopped having that human interaction that we took for granted - the glue that holds us together as a society and that is socially fundamental to us as humans. It promotes trust and security.

I, like most people, carried on working. I was fortunate enough to have secure employment within the NHS. A lot of people lost their jobs and many people were furloughed. Within my family, I also felt secure in the knowledge that I still had both my parents, at the age of 81, and they still had each other. They were a very able and capable couple. We were also lucky, as a family of five, that we would all look out for them.

It was reassuring to go to work and know that they were safe; we would get through this. I was hearing of deaths every day due to Covid-19 and other health issues. It was scary but, as a family, we were doing OK. We would take all the necessary precautions to keep our parents safe. Sure, they were invincible, possibly even immortal. Well, so we thought.

My father was a small man in height but, to us, he was big in stature, our true protector, the provider. He provided us with unconditional love. He was a good husband and a good father. A quite dignified man, many would say. He didn’t say much, which was true, but, when he did express an opinion, it usually meant something. He disliked fuss and was always happy enough to blend into the background. He worked hard and rarely spoke about his work. He followed the health service ethos: “Duty of care to your patients”.

Michael with Roisin who survived the house fire and went on to become a nurse.

He started off as a vehicle driver at Stradreagh Hospital, delivering stores and taking patients to appointments. He was very dedicated to that job but the end goal was to join the Ambulance Service which he eventually did. In those days, you went to a place called Wrenbury in England to do your training - not an easy task for a home bird. Those weeks away were not easy for him. He missed home and was always worrying about us, but he had to complete the training and learn the lifesaving skills in order to do the job. His determination to succeed took over.

After successfully completing his training, he returned home and, like many others at the time, took on the task of dealing with everyday emergencies. Now, don’t forget, it was 1970s Derry and we were at the height of the Troubles. Along with his colleagues, he dealt with so much trauma; bomb blasts were an everyday occurrence and they faced many difficult and often dangerous days during the conflict. Again, he tried to protect us from the news and shelter us from what was happening in our city, although, as young children growing up, it was a part of our daily lives - hearing bombs going off or shots being fired. We didn’t know any better. It was the norm.

Tragedy would strike us for the first time in 1973. We had a sister called Jennifer. I remember she had the most beautiful curly hair and looked like a wee angel. Her hair felt so soft to touch. She came into our lives for a very short time. She was born with some health problems. Both our parents were devoted to her but she was not meant to be with us forever. After three short years of life, my mum went to get Jennifer in her cot but she had left us.

I have vivid memories of the tiny white coffin in the corner of the room and (in those days) the black bow displayed on the front door signifying a death. My parents were overcome with grief and despair. People called to the house to pay their respects and offer condolences. I remember wondering why Jennifer would not wake up. The next day, my daddy lifted the small white coffin in his arms, carrying Jennifer for the last time out to the black hearse which took her away to her final resting place. Life for us, as a family, would be very sad for a long time. I’m not sure how you cope with that tragedy as a parent and I don’t believe my parents ever totally healed from their loss. I believe they carried on because they had other children that they needed to care for and, again, their protection and caring instincts took over.

Later that year, we moved to a new house in the Waterside and, even though we had this awful tragedy in our lives, our new home was a very happy one, filled with love, and we would go on to make some great memories there. We welcomed a new baby girl into our family. The house saw us grow from children to adults as we went through the trials and tribulations of family life. We brought boyfriends and girlfriends home and, eventually, were married from it. No matter what was happening in the world or our own town, our house was safe and we knew we were loved.

My parents were ready for the next chapter in their lives and they deserved it. Retirement suited them well and, boy, did they enjoy it! I don’t think there was a country in Europe that they did not travel to. As a family, we looked forward to their return to hear all their stories and their adventures. It was on one such adventure that a story came to light on the local radio station. A local man was in Altnagelvin Hospital for treatment and during his stay he had a conversation with a lovely nurse who was treating him. The conversation was about an awful fire tragedy in London. The nurse told him that she, herself, as a five year-old, had been rescued from a house fire. It emerged that she had been rescued by the very man who she had been treating. What an emotional time that was for the both of them.

The nurse, however, was anxious to find out the identity of the ambulance man who had taken her to the hospital. While she had little recollection of events, her parents had told her that she had to be resuscitated no fewer than three times before arriving at the hospital. She wanted to meet this man. I remember that morning so well. My sister rang my parents, who were on one of their many holidays, and relayed the story to them and of the rumour doing the rounds that the ambulance man was none other than my father. Was this true? Why did we never know about this story?

On his return, he recalled the events for us and it was heart-wrenching. He said he had been handed this wee girl by the brave fireman who had pulled her from the flames and was told, “I think she is gone - it’s too late”. He proceeded to do his job and, yes, he said he had to resuscitate her no less than three times to get her to breathe again. He said it was an emotional night and his thoughts were about Jennifer and that he had not been able to save her and he knew what pain and heartache felt like as a parent to lose a child. Not only was it his job to try to save this child but, also, he didn’t want another family to feel the grief and sadness that losing a child brings. It was a sad story yet it had a happy outcome. We were blown away that not only was he our hero, but he really was an actual real-life hero! We were so proud.

The media got hold of his phone number and wanted a follow up story. They wanted him to meet the girl in question but he refused point blank. He said, “No, I was only doing my job. She doesn’t need to thank me”. This sums him up really well. He didn’t want credit. The credit and satisfaction he got was saving the child’s life. A few days later, after thinking about it, he agreed to meet the girl who was called Roisin Roddy. “I will meet her,” he said, “but I want to do it privately. I don’t want any media coverage”. It was agreed. We were so happy that he had made this decision and we set the wheels in motion to arrange the meeting. They decided to meet in a small café in town and, when the meeting was recalled to us that evening, I could feel all the emotion and feelings that were there that day.

Roisin was grinning from ear to ear when they met and she immediately hugged him and thanked him for saving her life. She told him, “You are my hero; I am here today because of you”. He told her the story and she was overcome with emotion and, in a way, it gave her more clarification as to the events of that night. They chatted away and it was like they had known each other all their lives.

They promised to stay in touch. She was a lovely girl and, when he celebrated a special birthday, she sent him the most beautiful gift which he cherished. They stayed friends and she became an integral part of our family and we thank her for her friendship.

This lovely girl would always be special to our family, but she also then came back to us in a professional capacity. My mum had some blood tests done and they came back with a few concerns and, as she was a previous cancer patient, we feared the worst. This lovely girl was part of the professional care team that was there to help and guide us through this nightmare.

As we waited for the results, life progressed in our city. We were still in lockdown with Covid-19 and we rallied around our parents to support them both. The weeks went on, tests were done as quickly as possible. We were in the middle of a global pandemic, so services were stretched. Every day felt like a week. Would the news ever come?

We celebrated my mammy’s birthday on November 19 at my sister’s house. We had a small family get together and tried to be positive and hoped that things would be OK. My sister had her Christmas tree up to try to cheer us all up. I remember that day clearly. We had the most beautiful family picture taken around the tree.

In the coming weeks, like for all of us in 2020, we had a lot to deal with and we were also preparing for a different type of Christmas. This year would be like no other. Like the whole world, we had to continue with our daily lives. We couldn’t be with my parents 24/7. All we could do was call each day and check in to make sure they were doing alright.

The call came on a Friday morning. An ambulance had been called. I left work immediately and went to the hospital. We were not able to do much as, obviously, the hospital was restricted due to the pandemic. It was the most awful day. We hated the fact that we could do nothing but wait and wait to hear the outcome. One family member was allowed to visit the ward dressed in full PPE. My sister was nominated. Having worked in the caring profession as a nurse for many years, we felt she was the best choice. She went every day and came back with the news and told us not to worry - everything would be OK and slow steady progress was being made.

We were happy with this although the stress of not being able to visit was awful. We just prayed and hoped that there would be a good outcome. We got the house prepared and decorated for Christmas. Shopping was being done and plans for returning home were in motion.

I didn’t sleep well that night. I had a really bad feeling in the pit of my stomach that just would not go away. I think I eventually fell asleep but was awoken at 1.45 am by a call telling me I was needed at the hospital. The journey was only five minutes but it felt like an hour’s drive. The rush of emotions when you reach those doors and you don’t know what will greet you…

We arrived together as a family almost as if we had planned it and I remember the long walk up that corridor to Ward 26. It was horrendous. The nurse opened the doors and let us in. We didn’t have far to go as it was the first room beside the nurses’ station. I knew before she even said the words, “I’m so sorry to tell you, your daddy has passed away”.

Nothing brings back the person you lost. I know we can’t all live forever. Everything on the planet dies, eventually, but you never lose the pain.

His name was Michael. He was our Daddy. He was our true protector.

The day my Daddy died, my mother was diagnosed with secondary lung cancer.

The battle continues. The journey goes on.

○ I’d like to take this opportunity to thank O’Brien’s Funeral Directors, Limavady, for the care and respect they showed to my daddy, the Northern Ireland Ambulance Service for the guard of honour it provided and all the staff of Altnagelvin Hospital’s Accident & Emergency Dept. and Ward 26.