(This is the text of a short talk during a Lenten Worship)
I think I was very fortunate as I was born to parents for whom their Christian faith
was very important. It wasn’t a home where Christianity was thrust down your throat
but I was very much aware that there were certain expectations of how I was being
brought up that were to do with having a faith in God. Both my parents were very
active both in the church and in the charitable work they took part in outside of
the church. I accompanied them to church each Sunday and went out to Sunday School
during the sermon until after communion……that is until a little boy showed me something
he shouldn’t and I then stayed throughout but never felt this a burden as Croydon
Parish Church was rather like St John’s Keele…..plenty to look at during lengthy
sermons and good singing to listen to.
From the age of about 7, I thought I would like to work with children as I accompanied
my mother to the local Children’s Society home where she was part of the house committee.
I felt real sympathy and love for these children who had no parents and had to share
a house mother (usually a kindly spinster) with six or seven others.
I learned about the Christian faith as I went along and accepted that this was the
right thing. At about 10 I was one of the children chosen to visit the local hospital
to take along the toys we had gathered through the scheme run by The London Evening
News…’Toy for a sick child’. This was a real life changing experience and I knew
from then that I ought to be a children’s nurse….the dreadfully poorly children,
shut up in hospital and not allowed to be visited by their mothers except for an
hotwice a week. When I talked about this, someone used the word ‘vocation’ and I
had to ask what this meant. Yes, I really DID feel called by God to do this work.
For the next few years all sorts of people tried to dissuade me….my father….”its
really hard work and the pay is nothing”….the school……”we expect something far more
academic from you…you are a bright girl, you should be aiming for university”….my
friends,…”you’ll always be wearing a uniform and never be able to afford nice fashions
and you’ll never meet boys”. This of course made me more determined to follow my
heart and where I felt I was being called…Yes…..I DID think that.
I met Maeve when I was three weeks into my first ward placement. She was two and
a half and was being nursed in a cubicle inside an oxygen tent. She had cystic fibrosis
and had a short life expectancy, as children with that dreadful dirty disease did
in the 190’s. Her family were in Northern Ireland. I should not have been allowed
to care for a cubicled child…you had to be on your third placement for that, but
I suppose someone was off sick. She was a very poorly sad little girl, absolutely
no energy or appetite very pale and with great difficulty in breathing. We struck
up a friendship and I had raised a smile and even a little laugh from her from her
on several occasions in those first hours together. I found that I was ‘specialing’
her every time I was on duty…..52hours a week in those days. One morning we were
having a tickle & a romp as I washed her and the ward sister put her head round the
door with the consultant close behind….”Nurse don’t get too fond of Maeve, she’s
going to die soon”.
This was the first time I think I had truly questioned why the Almighty could allow
so much suffering. This was the moment when I first began to question my faith with
any depth. But this was when I knew that the reason I was here was so that I could
do all in my power to relieve some of this suffering. Shortly after that I met Maeve’s’s
mother and her five older brothers who had travelled from Ireland to visit her. They
were a loving, but very impoverished family who had sent Maeve to Great Ormond Street
because they believed this was the only place where she might get better. For them
it was a heart rending sacrifice but they were sure this would be the very best for
their treasured little girl. maeve died a couple of months later. But of course she
and her loving mother are still very much alive in my heart even after fifty four
A few years and much experience later I met Sharon. She was also about two. She was
brought to the ward by her parents and seven year old brother with a diagnosis of
‘failure to thrive’. It was odd, she was wheeled in, in her very smart pushchair.
Her mother was a very glamorous model and her father and brother were also exquisitely
dressed…..and so was Sharon. She looked pale and subdued and readily lay down in
her cot. She apparently was a very poor eater, and always miserable and crying. She
had one toy with her, a brand new teddy bear from Hamleys. Her parents left straight
away and Sharon just lay there staring at the other children in the ward. Her parents
had said she had no favourite food so we sat her with a small group of other toddlers
with a sausage and mashed potato. She seemed to quite like this but then indicated
that she wanted to get back in her cot. She allowed the doctors and nurses to undress
her, take some blood and have an x-ray with no protest at all. Her Teddy lay untouched.
Within a few days Sharon had put on weight, was eating everything we put in front
of her and playing a bit with the ward toys. All medical investigations proved negative.
So Sharon returned home. She was admitted twice again, each time with a lower weight
and increasingly listless. Eventually it was realised that Sharon was a victim of
what we then called ‘Non-accidental Injury’……this was the early 1960’s This was emotional
abuse. This was a very difficult and unbelievable diagnosis for the nurses and doctors
to believe. How I hated that mother…a physically perfect and adorable little girl…..so
many children at GOS had the most devastating medical problems…and yet her birth
mother didn’t have any feeling of love, joy or care for her child. We know now that
this is a medical problem and not particularly uncommon but it was all new in 1964.
On a dark and stormy night a few years later in Leeds I received a call from a public
phone box from a young girl whispering that “the baby is coming and it’s early”.
The house was a one-up-one-down in a poor area of the city, due for slum clearance.
Donna who had phoned me was sixteen and it was she who was in labour. She had married
a few months before but her husband who was almost seventeen couldn’t cope with the
pregnancy and had moved to Pontefract to work in the mine. It was too late to call
an ambulance and Donna was alone in the house. Just as the baby was born the elderly
next door neighbour struggled up the stairs. She was an evil looking woman with just
two black lower teeth and none too clean either. I was grateful for her presence
as when I turned over the baby boy I saw he had the most enormous lesion on his back
and his legs were small, deformed and lifeless. He had severe Spina Bifida. He
needed immediate hospital treatment as it was considered life saving in the mid-
sixties to close the back and deal with the spinal fluid which then accumulated on
the brain. Florrie from next door was despatched to the telephone kiosk to get the
GP, meanwhile I explained to Donna about her baby’s problem and that her little boy
would die within a couple of days without immediate surgery (while knowing in my
heart that with a lesion that large he would die after surgery anyway). She grasped
her little boy closely and kissed and caressed him. She would never let him go to
hospital. I prayed hard, asking for guidance as to how to help them both. The GP
was a kindly man and I put my case to him. We both knew that Paul, as he was now
called, would be very unlikely to survive with or without surgery. Could we leave
this young girl to care for a dying baby with support only from her unsavoury neighbour?
I remember being very angry with God on my drive home through the night city. How
could He do this to Donna. Donna…a gift…..What sort of gift had He given her….husband
walked out, deformed and dying baby to be responsible for when she still needed to
be mothered herself and only an unknown neighbour to help. How cruel was this of
a so-called loving God. I remember taking out my anger with God by throwing around
my steel midwifery equipment as I sterilised it in the kitchen at 4am…so much so
that my flatmate Jenny appeared downstairs to see what was going on. This God was
cruelly taking away something so obviously precious to Donna. Over the next few
days I watched Donna tenderly love and care for Paul, cleaning his leaking wound
four ,five eight, ten times times a day, constantly alert to his needs. He thrived.
Donna was the most wonderful mother and they had an amazing bond. Paul of course
was never going to walk but his development was excellent in every other way. Donna
refused all advice to let him have surgery and continued to care for his leaking
back without any help. When Paul was four his father returned. Eventually at around
the age of ten Paul himself chose to have his back repaired so that his mum could
get a job, he said. Donna had been and continued to be a most spectacular mother
in every way and it seemed that through the dreadful suffering which she shared with
her little son, this had made her the strong and beautiful person she became. Somehow
as well it had given a reason for why God had let this happen.
My own faith jogged along for the next decade. As a mother I tried to instil the
same Christian values as had guided my own up-bringing.
I returned to work and it seemed to become easier to let my faith slide as shift
working, growing children and some charity work intervened.
I was in charge of the Neonatal unit one night, all 30 cots were occupied and we
were extremely busy and the two paediatricians were dealing with emergencies..….when
baby 31 was rushed through the door in the arms of a midwife. “you’ll have to take
this one Sister, her mother’s in acute multiple organ failure and is being transferred
to Birmingham and we’ve now found baby’s not breathing”.
On the resuscitation table I could see that she was a perfectly formed full-term
baby. She was lifeless with no perceptible heartbeat. I managed to intubate her
but she needed to go on a ventilator and in 1978 our unit possessed only two which
were in use. What to do?
Neither of these extremely premature babies could be disconnected although both were
unlikely to survive. With a commotion at the door I left the only available person,
the ward domestic ‘bagging’ the baby as I went to see what was happening. The baby’s
father was fighting his way in to see his little one before getting in the RAF helicopter
to go with his wife to Birmingham. “Sister please look after my little girl I think
I’m going to lose them both…..He clung onto my arm saying “I want her to be baptised,
we are Christians and I don’t want her to die without Baptism, please sister” ….What
name…… “we had only got a boy’s name and that was George”.
A quick call was made to the chaplain who was in Cheadle sitting with a dying man.
So with his permission I baptised Georgina Marie (because that was her mum’s name)
and because we could do nothing else we covered her in a pink cotton blanket, lay
her flat on the rescus. trolley and moved away to care for all those other poorly
preterms who had been neglected and not received their hourly care. I prayed lots
more of those arrow prayers….had I done the right thing….I had already broken two
rules……someone would report me and I’d be suspended…..I’d made a decision I had no
right to make and intubated without permission…..
Twenty minutes later I heard a shout……Georgina had kicked off her blanket and spat
out her airway and was moving her arms and legs.
No one has ever been able to medically explain this and I don’t want them to. Georgina’s
mother survived, although quite disabled, and Georgina herself grew and developed
I’m not a great thinker about my faith, in fact I’m very lazy about that. As time
went on I still continued to have doubts and needed some replenishment to keep me
on my ‘Journey’. After I recovered from my brain tumour I knew that God still had
a purpose for me. I found the Alpha course helped to renew and replenish my beliefs
to a certain extent but there was one person who finally made me feel at home in
my own beliefs and that was someone who was such a fine example of a Christian yet
still perfectly normal! So I want to remember, our late reader Alan Taylor who to
me was such a kind and fatherly inspiration.
So now…its Mothering Sunday so let’s remember those mothers I’ve mentioned and in
the prayers which follow think of mothers like Maeve’s and mothers like Sharons’s
who needed help to mother. Think about Donna and her simple and overriding mother
love, and of God’s restoration of Georgina to her mother. These people have inspired
me to keep my faith.