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Interview: Maureen Lahiff, retired nurse

16 July 2021

‘For years I thought it was a cricketer, but now I realise it was Jesus’

When I was seven and was given a general anaesthetic, I saw a brilliant shining man dressed in white. I was frightened, and for years I thought it was a cricketer, but now I realise it was Jesus. I never had any other visions, but I’ve sensed God’s guidance on some occasions.

After committing my life to Christ in my late teens, I felt called to be a nurse, but I worked in an office after leaving school, and had tuberculosis in my late teens. That gave me an insight into nursing, which remains with me today. Experiencing nursing care, I knew all levels of care and concern, from the best to the inadequate. Following surgery, I was kept in bed for three months and given anti-tubercular drugs. There were no trips to the toilet, or even a commode beside the bed, and certainly no showers. It’s hardly conceivable today.

My goal was to become well enough to do my nurse training, and I believed strongly that God wanted me to do that. It meant that I was 22 when I started training in 1953, and older than most of my colleagues. It was incredibly hard, but I survived. I think a third of our work then was cleaning.

I trained as a midwife, then in thoracic nursing, and as a health visitor. I became Chief Nurse in Bloomsbury in 1986.

Chief Nurses provided clinical leadership after the NHS appointed non-clinical managers. It’s easier [for them] to make hard decisions if you don’t have clinical experience. We were for ever cutting back. It’s always been challenging. I oversaw 16 hospitals, 3000 nurses, midwives, and health visitors, and developed my predecessor’s very good foundations for research. One major problem, then and now, has been recruitment and retention. I wouldn’t agree to recruiting overseas, because we’re poaching clinical staff whose training has been paid for by other countries.

My goal was to develop nurses for advanced clinical practice, though there was no clinical career structure at the time. I was confident that it would come — which it did — and it’s now widespread.

I wonder if some people have a rather elitist perception of degrees? The notion that compassion and undergraduate study are incompatible doesn’t stand up in practice. Today’s nurses need to understand the complexities of health care and play an active part in the health-care team, where all the other members are graduates. They need to think analytically and critically as well as be prepared to change direction when patients’ needs require that.

I had experienced nurses who were compassionate, and others who weren’t, long before degrees were available — and I wouldn’t want a compassionate nurse who didn’t understand my care needs. Recently, I’ve been inspired by memoirs of two nurses with doctorates. Each of them developed a key area of patient care, providing better outcomes for their patients. My dreams of such advances have come true.

Nurses have long been expanding their professional roles. When I trained, there were no intensive-care units or recovery wards. Intravenous infusions were not as common as today. We were allowed to take blood pressure, but not to change anything until a doctor said what was to be done. Today, patients can receive the best care quickly and safely because nurses have a greater understanding of what they are doing, and set up their own research into nursing care.

Compassion in nursing today? I think the biggest problem is time. Nurses leave the profession because the pressures of staff shortages leave them unable to care for people at the standard they know they should be giving. I sympathise with them. Nurse-to-patient ratios are inadequate, and the Nightingale hospital in London wasn’t used because there were insufficient health professionals to staff it. They were all too busy in the existing hospitals.

I want people to know that I’m in my 90th year, and I’ve just had a book published. Someone asked me if I’d write another one, but I’m busy marketing this one. One is never too old to do something new.

I was born in Kew, and we lived in Ham and Richmond, which was semi-rural then. I enjoyed the open spaces and the river. I was eight when war broke out. We lived outside the London area; so we weren’t evacuated, but we were bombed out, and my mother took us to her parents in Coventry, where I passed the 11-plus to the county school. After the war, my parents divorced. My sister and I joined the church youth club, which led to Lee Abbey, where we both worked in the community.

I married and had a son, Michael, with Down’s syndrome. I was so disappointed that I couldn’t care for him, but couldn’t give him up for adoption either. Our real focus then was having another baby. When David was born, he was the apple of our eye, though Michael was very much part of our family. Michael settled in his residential home, and David developed epilepsy in his late teens. His seizures were infrequent, and caused mainly by computer screens, which were not widely available at the time.

I didn’t know that people could die having an epileptic seizure. The shock of David’s death, when he was 20, ended my full-time career. I worked part-time for a few years before retiring and working with the SUDEP [Sudden Death in Epilepsy] Action charity as a trustee, raising awareness of the condition and the associated risks.

When David died, we began to see more of Michael. On retirement, I planned to leave my stressful marriage, and I asked God what he wanted me to do with the rest of my life. The answer came: stick with your marriage vows, sell up, let go, and travel. So I stayed with Kerry. We got rid of our house and contents, bought a motor-home, and lived adventurously as nomads from 2000 to 2008. Kerry had found it hard when my career took off, but now we had a much more equal partnership. He did the driving, and I was chief cook and navigator.

Michael lived with us in the motor-home for six months, but he needed a secure home, and it seemed like a redemptive act that we heard about L’Arche, in Bognor, from a Faith and Light contact in Sussex. Michael lived there for five very happy years before he died in 2009.

After Michael’s sudden death at 39, I realised that I’d witnessed his spiritual gifts, the first of which became evident at David’s deathbed. Having shared these stories with friends, I was encouraged to write them down, and I believed God wanted them shared with a wider audience, to encourage people to face their fears of anyone with a disability, and perceive their gifts.

L’Arche developed Michael’s whole personality and spiritual life. He prayed and prayed. He was an ambassador for L’Arche at Greenbelt every year, and, when he died, we had messages from all over the UK and Europe, from people who met him there.

My husband died three years ago, and now I live alone in a sunny three-bedroomed terraced house with views across the Stour Estuary and Suffolk. I have the necessary adaptations to help me get around, and one of my four carers comes each weekday. I have small gardens, which are full of flowers, and that’s where I’m happiest.

I haven’t the energy to be angry.

I love Berlioz’s “The Shepherds’ Farewell” from The Childhood of Christ. We had it at our wedding and the funerals of my husband and sons. I hope to have it at my funeral.

I hope that governments and individuals will grasp the seriousness of climate change, and act to lessen its effects.

I pray for my fellow associates of the Community of the Sisters of the Church, family and friends, carers and health-care workers. And for war-torn countries and those suffering from climate change.

I’d like to be locked in a church with Jack Winslow, former chaplain at Lee Abbey, who wrote The Eyelids of the Dawn. I’d ask him about how his relationship with Jesus changed 25 years after his ordination, and his expectation that India would lead the world into deeper spirituality.


Maureen Lahiff was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

Michael: A transforming presence is available from the author: maulahiff@gmail.com

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