Fifty years in any career will leave you with plenty of stories to tell, but few could bring as much to a dinner party as former nurse Mildred Wylie.
Her half-decade in the nursing and care profession saw the worst turmoil and at the very end of her career the coronavirus pandemic brought new challenges.
First a nurse, Mildred and her husband Norman set up their own private care homes and also helped build an orphanage in Kenya.
Mildred said: “My passion in life was to help and care for those in need, so a career as a nurse at the Royal Victoria Hospital was my first choice as it was considered the best training hospital in Ireland.
“In 1971, I got a job as a nursing assistant at St Luke’s Hospital for Mental Health before starting my nursing training at Royal Victoria Hospital in December 1971.
Of her role as a nurse, the mother of four said, “Every detail was scrutinized and there was a certain etiquette expected in the wards. You weren’t allowed, for example, to use first names and we had to wear and make our own stiff white linen butterfly hats.
“We had a late fortnight pass and an 11pm curfew. There were many strict disciplines and we nurses were petrified of sisters and even third grade nurses.
“We were expected to be at a very high level. However, when we met colleagues after the shift, we were able to express our feelings, dust ourselves off, and take on another challenge the next day.
Mildred’s debut in nursing in 1972 coincided with one of the worst years of the Troubles: “There were a lot of sad memories of our early days in the halls of the Royal, but there was a lot of laughter and a great sense of the camaraderie that supported us.
“Most of us left school as a teenager and went straight to nursing school and, without any mental preparation, we suddenly had to deal with horrific injuries and deaths from bombs and daily balls.
“In March 1972, the Abercorn bombing took place in a crowded restaurant in downtown Belfast, injuring 130 people and killing two young women. Most of the injuries were serious and included loss of limbs and eyes.
“There were a number of these victims in the first ward I was assigned to. We were literally in the thick of it, faced with heart-wrenching scenarios and it was difficult for the young nursing students to cope. “
She said: “It was very tragic to see the lives of patients and their families destroyed due to injuries and trauma from the unrest.
“It was normal to see several police and soldiers guarding the wards, but the biggest lesson we learned was that everyone was the same when they were lying on a hospital bed.
“There were Republicans in a bed next to the loyalists, next to the police and next to the soldiers. Whoever it was, all the tears were the same at the end.
“We felt incredibly privileged to step into someone’s life through tough times and make a difference.”
She remembers one night the Royal Victoria Hospital was the target of sniper fire on her way to the canteen: on my duties. It was a frightening experience. That night someone was shot.
“I didn’t know at the time that all these experiences were preparing me for my future.
“Three years quickly passed and I was now a registered general nurse able to take responsibility for the services. “
In 1975, Mildred married Norman. They have four boys who gave them 15 grandchildren. She said, “We are so blessed. I have a deep personal faith and family has always been my priority along with trusted friends. This philosophy continued throughout my nursing career, and everyone in my care was treated as if they were family and given the utmost care, love and support, balanced with a lot of fun in their life.
The same year – 1975 – Mildred arrived at the Armagh Tower Hill Special Care Unit.
Her work with people with severe learning disabilities and mental health issues led her, along with her husband Norman, to open Hebron House in Markethill and Bawn Cottage in Hamiltonsbawn – two private residences.
She said, “We have been divinely led to open a private residential home to care for those in need and to treat everyone we care for as our own family, regardless of their disability.
“The residents have all had a remarkable lifestyle: going on vacation abroad, experiences of planes, buses, trains, bicycles, trips to places of interest, university, meeting friends. , make friends in the community, attend places of worship, gardening, arts and crafts and fishing, etc.
“Life at Hebron House and sister house Bawn Cottage remains to this day a very happy home for all of the residents who have lived there despite very difficult and terrible times through the unrest and most recently the Covid-19 pandemic.”
Mildred was on vacation with her husband and four boys on August 28, 1991 when two police officers arrived at the complex.
She said: “They asked me ‘Are you Mrs. Wylie who owns Hebron House?’ About a hundred things went through my mind. The officer and the policewoman went on to say that there was a 1000 pound bomb planted in Main Street, Markethill, and at this point they could not tell me if there had been any injuries or deaths.
“Due to the bomb, all phone lines were down and advised me to go to my premises immediately.”
Back in Markethill, the police had evacuated Hebron House.
Mildred said: “All of the service personnel went on autopilot and within five minutes all residents were in their cars to take them out of town to safety. In a few minutes the bomb exploded
“Knowing the condition of the Hebron house, the residents had no way of going back and the staff were amazing, offering to take them to their home as it would have been too traumatic for them to see the devastation. “
Of the pandemic, she said: “As the registered manager of the Hebron House and Bawn Cottage residences, I was thrown on the front line during the first and then the second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic.
“With this, it became necessary to lockout restrictions to help reduce the risk and protect residents from contracting this deadly disease and to protect staff.
“It was intended to change the lifestyle of residents – no going out to places of interest, no university or community events, no shopping or strolling in the parks and very few medical appointments, no daycares and if they had to go to the hospital, they had to self-isolate when they returned to their room for 14 days.
“Fortunately, Covid-19 did not enter our residential homes during the entire pandemic. Staff are to be commended for their vigilance as it was not easy to wear full PPE.
“The lockdown stretched the imagination of the staff team as they overcame the challenges and began to think outside the box, thinking of ways to have and do activities that were meaningful to each resident.”
In 2002, Mildred and her husband Norman established orphanages in Kenya to help children whose parents died of HIV.
She recalls a visit to Nairobi with her sister in 2001: “Poverty met us everywhere – children begged, were sick and cried on the streets of Nairobi. Every night Rachel and I could hear locals screaming to alert neighbors that another death had occurred in the area.
“I vividly remember the first trip from Nairobi in a rickety old minibus through the Rift Valley that collapsed in bandit country to where the children’s house was. These bandits stopped the bus and our friends quickly threw blankets at us so that we could not be identified. These bandits would have killed us if they thought we had any valuables.
“We finally arrived and such a welcome from the children. They were dancing and singing and we were able to give them gifts and clothes. We also brought sweets that they have never had in their lives. It was very moving to see the kids take a candy and make it last for days by sharing it with their boyfriends.
She said: “We quickly realized that these dear people had no way and that we had to share this dilemma when we returned home with family and friends.
When we shared our real experiences, our friends and family joined in and a charity was formed to improve the lives and education of children in Kenya. Every year, we visit the children’s home to make sure that the funds they receive are being used correctly.
Mildred said: “For me personally, all of these experiences over the years have been very enriching and satisfying.
I look forward to new challenges as I face the future and trust and pray for good health on the next leg of my journey.
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