Cork nurse who is now healing body and mind

COLETTE SHERIDAN talks to a Cork woman who has been a nurse for 42 years, and has now beefed up her people skills with a Masters in psychological safety
Cork nurse who is now healing body and mind

CARING ETHOS: Kinsale-based public health nurse Maria Burke and her daughter Abbie, who was born 12 week premature weighing less than 2 pounds

A NURSE for 42 years, Maria Burke works as a public health nurse for Kinsale Primary Care and has completed a Masters in psychological safety.

She says much of her approach to working in the community comes back to her own experiences.

When she worked in a neo-natal unit in Saudi Arabia, little did Maria know back then that she would later give birth to a premature baby following a couple of miscarriages.

Her only child, Abbie McCarthy, was born 12 weeks premature and weighed just one pound and 9-and-a-half ounces.

Now aged 16, Abbie has reached all her milestones and got good results in her Junior Cert this year. She is the centre of Maria and her husband Denis McCarthy’s lives.

Trained in midwifery, Maria recalls a midwife saying to her that parents always remember who was present at the birth of their baby.

“As a midwife, you’re not going to remember all the babies you deliver. But when my own daughter was born, I can tell you where everybody stood in the room and what they said.

“And as a public health nurse going into people’s homes, they’re never going to forget who gave them care and support.”

Maria says that as a nurse who has experienced trauma, “because of your story, you’re more inclined to give that extra bit of support”.

Maria’s brother Francis, three years younger than her, has Down Syndrome and now lives in shared accommodation in Bandon. Maria was always conscious of her mother’s need for support in bringing up Francis and gave her as much help as she could.

“One day, I was in a house (as a public health nurse) not long after my mother died. There was a lady dying in similar circumstances as my mother. Out of nowhere, I started crying. I was conscious of it and said to the family that I was really sorry.”

“I got a big hug from the daughter who said ‘Oh my god, it proves you have a heart’.

“There’s nothing you could say to me that I haven’t experienced in the community. Having had miscarriages, if I’m meeting mothers, I am empathetic and compassionate, because of my own story.”

Maria, who did her Masters under Dr Tony Humphreys, says it was about the psychological safety experiences of the public health nurse on the frontline of community care.

“Psychological safety is where we’re unafraid to express ourselves openly and consciously. If there’s a lack of psychological safety in places where we live or work, it can lead to being defensive.

“My language has changed. I’m now coming from an ‘I’ place rather than a ‘you’ place. If I say ‘you, you, you,’ it’s all about me. But if I’m coming from my ‘I’ place, I have clear and conscious communication.”

Maria’s studies, which included an interpersonal communication course, help her to increase “my own level of consciousness in that I can stay separate from the behaviour of others, be it around conflict or communication. Whatever anybody says, it’s about them and not me.”

Her self-exploration has been transformative personally and professionally. It has improved her relationships with her husband and daughter.

“Sometimes, I’m not in a solid place,” said Maria. “Maybe I’m giving out. Of course, I’m really giving out about myself. Abbie will say, ‘mum, that’s about you, not me’.”

Originally from Leap in West Cork, Maria started nursing at 17. She did intellectual disability nursing in St Joseph’s in Clonsilla in Dublin. After that training, she worked in Dublin for three years. She then went to Australia.

“In the 1980s, unlike now, it was difficult to get work in Ireland,” said Maria. “A lot of my friends and colleagues were emigrating to Australia so I went to Sydney and trained in psychiatric nursing there.”

She worked in that speciality in the community before returning to Ireland. Maria knew that working in the community was what she wanted to continue doing.

She did further training. Then, in her early thirties, she went to Saudi Arabia to work for two years so that she could save for a deposit on a house.

“I found working in Saudi a fabulous experience. We were very well protected and had lovely accommodation. Obviously, the approach to women wasn’t great, but it was my choice to go there so I had to integrate to the culture. Working in a neo-natal unit, the care there was amazing.”

After returning from the Middle East, Maria trained as a midwife in Cork, in St Finbar’s Hospital and Erinville.

“I did midwifery to work in the community. And I did my public health nurse training. To do that, I attended UCC.

“You also had to go out into the community and I was mentored by a public health nurse.

“In the job, you’re dealing with people from birth to death, designated a geographical area.”

In all her years nursing, Maria, who says the sector is undervalued, notes the biggest change she has witnessed is the amount of time taken up on online administrative work.

“There’s a lot of online training also, whereas before, it would be in person. But the care needs for the patients don’t change.

“The other thing I’m noticing is how hard it is to get home help for patients. Maybe it’s because they’re not paid enough, travelling between clients and not being able to cover their costs.”

There aren’t many upsides to the pandemic, but Maria says that as a result of people being restricted to home, babies are thriving.

“With the mothers at home, they’re totally present to their beautiful new baby. Breast-feeding worked beautifully.

“But the other side of that is babies missing out on contact with grandparents.

“For the elderly, Covid was really difficult. There is such an amount of people living on their own. There’s loneliness because of lack of contact.”

As a public health nurse, Maria has a window into the lives of others. Her work is very much a vocation informed by her training and life experience.

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