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Kevin O’Hara: A call to nursing


A rare photo, circa 1940, of Lady Violet Gibson at St. Andrew’s Hospital in Northampton, England.

With Mother’s Day just a week away, it seemed only fitting for me to share an excerpt from my newest book, “Ins and Outs of a Locked Ward,” which involves my departed mom and her storied nursing career.

Many sons follow in their father’s footsteps, but due to a series of unforeseen events, it would be my mother’s footsteps that I would eventually follow.

It all began halfway around the globe, when I was a young airman stationed at Cam Ranh Bay, Vietnam, in 1969-70. There I read the book “The Night They Burned the Mountain” by Dr. Tom Dooley. Dr. Dooley was a former U.S. Navy doctor assigned to help refugees from North to South Vietnam after the country’s partition in 1954. He soon left the Navy and went on to establish his own clinic in Muong Sing, Laos. Sadly, he died at 34, but his clinic operated for years, and helped inspire the Peace Corps.

I was so moved by Dr. Dooley’s mission that I wanted to join MEDICO, the medical arm of the Dooley Foundation, which then supported both his clinics and orphanages in Southeast Asia. While still in-country, I wrote to the foundation, asking what I could do to help once I was discharged. They answered immediately, saying they were desperate for nurses. So I pledged to become a nurse and join MEDICO, as I adopted Dr. Dooley’s motto as my own, “From the wretchedness of Asia, I learned what my job on this earth was to be.”

Once back home, I enrolled at Berkshire Community College, and began to take prerequisite courses for their nursing program. However, during my second semester, the war had spilled into Laos, which forced MEDICO to abandon its clinics. Heartbroken, with no longer a tangible goal in sight, I sought the advice of my mother for guidance and direction.

As mentioned above, here’s an excerpt from my forthcoming book:

With MEDICO’S closing, I found myself just going through the motions in my coursework at BCC, doubting whether to pursue nursing as a career. Why enter a largely female profession, now that I’d be staying stateside? A male nurse wouldn’t faze the kids at Muong Sing, but I could hear the ribbing I’d get from my hometown buddies: “A nurse? Gee, O’Hara, why not a cosmetologist?” At the time, male nurses were few and far between, and the phrase itself seemed oxymoronic.

This was the issue I set before my mother, but she set me straight, explaining that nursing was a ministry suitable for men and women alike. She cited St. Benedict, St. Gerard, and the Hospital Brothers of St. Anthony, and how hospitals were really an outgrowth of medieval religious orders ...

Mom didn’t stop there. She urged me, “Think of all the good you could do as a nurse, all the lives you might touch. You could join the Peace Corps and travel to any number of countries, even Asia.” She retrieved a handbook, “Mental Nursing,” from her own nursing days during World War II in England. As I thumbed through the pages, she shared stories of her days at St. Andrew’s Hospital in Northampton (England), reputed at the time to be one of the most prestigious psychiatric facilities in Europe.

Mom’s favorite patient was the Honorable Violet Gibson — daughter of the former Lord Chancellor of Ireland — who attempted to assassinate Benito Mussolini in Rome in 1926, and resided at St. Andrew’s until her death in 1956. Her gunshot struck his nose, but Mussolini took the attack lightly and saved her from an angry mob, reputedly saying, “Calm yourselves. It’s just a simple joke with a pistol shot.” Rather than being convicted, Violet was committed to St. Andrew’s.

“Miss Gibson rarely spoke to anyone,” Mom shared, “but one morning, out of the blue, she asked if I’d help her sew little pouches into the shoulders of her black dress. Once done, she’d go filling these pouches with breadcrumbs and sit perfectly still in the rose garden, where redbreasts and sparrows would alight on her shoulders and feed. She did this for years, mind you, and we’d often tell her that her cheeks had been caressed by the wings of a thousand birds. Our words never failed to make her smile.”

My mother also told me about Saint Dymphna, the “Lily of Eire,” who remains the patron saint of the mentally ill and those who care for them. With my mother’s encouragement, a different vision of nursing began to take shape in my mind, less about hordes of children on a distant shore, and more about troubled mental patients closer to home.

Now, as Mother’s Day approaches 50 years later, I still recall that conversation when my dear mom inspired me to become a nurse. Fortunately, I took her sound advice which led me to a rewarding, lifelong profession. For that alone, I am forever grateful to her.

Kevin O’Hara is a longtime Eagle columnist.

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