Cork midwife set to retire after 40 years 'exceptional' service

Cork midwife Margaret O’Driscoll is set to retire from Cork University Maternity Hospital, after four decades caring for babies, writes EMMA CONNOLLY
Cork midwife set to retire after 40 years 'exceptional' service

Margaret O’Driscoll (Clinical Midwife Manager 2) at the Neo-natal Unit at CUMH. Picture: Gerard McCarthy

“THE one place I did not want to work was the neo-natal ward, simply because babies aren’t able to tell you what’s wrong with them.”

So recalls Margaret O’Driscoll, who in fact ended up spending 40 years in the very same place, where she could read the little ones in her care like a book.

Margaret is hanging up her observation chart this year, and retiring after spending 27 years in the neo-natal unit in the Erinville, and 13 years in CUMH. In both hospitals she earned a special place in the hearts of the thousands of parents whose babies she cared so lovingly for.

Sarah O’Keeffe of Ballyvolane, Cork, with her baby son Aaron Cotter pictured with Dr. Brendan Murphy (Consultant Neonatologist) and Margaret O’Driscoll (Clinical Midwife Manager 2) at the Neonatal Unit at CUMH (Cork University Maternity Hospital). Picture: Gerard McCarthy 
Sarah O’Keeffe of Ballyvolane, Cork, with her baby son Aaron Cotter pictured with Dr. Brendan Murphy (Consultant Neonatologist) and Margaret O’Driscoll (Clinical Midwife Manager 2) at the Neonatal Unit at CUMH (Cork University Maternity Hospital). Picture: Gerard McCarthy 

She began her career in what is now Waterford University Hospital back in 1975, before training as a midwife in a hospital near Scotland and returning to her native Cork to embark on her career proper.

“Initially I didn’t want to work with babies at all — I felt that at least adults could tell you what’s wrong. But you learn very quickly that babies can too, in their subtle, or not so subtle ways! 

"They really do have lots of little ways to show us what they like and don’t like. They’re well able to scream when they have a wet nappy or an empty belly.”

After an initial year or two, Margaret found her stride, and quickly realised that she never wanted to leave neo-natal: “I can honestly say that there was never a day I didn’t want to come to work,” she said.

A mother of five children, ranging in ages from 36 to 27 (four of whom she had in four and a half years!), Margaret, lives in Kilbrittain in West Cork, and is married to Willie, a farmer.

Margaret O’Driscoll began her career in Waterford University Hospital back in 1975.
Margaret O’Driscoll began her career in Waterford University Hospital back in 1975.

After her third child, the option to job share became available, which she availed of.

“I used to work nights which meant that you’d do one week on, and have three weeks off. It was hard, but I had a most fantastic mother-in-law and I really couldn’t have kept up the job without her,” said Margaret.

The immense job satisfaction, despite the exhaustion, motivated her to always go that extra mile for the babies in her care. That sees her routinely give her phone number to parents when their babies are being discharged, and even offering to babysit for them on days off.

But in her typically modest way she says: “It’s just what I’d hope someone would do for one of my own. And I’m a great believer in what goes around, comes around.”

Among those forever indebted to Margaret are Elizabeth Nagle and her partner Denis Buckley. There were complications during the birth of their daughter Eve last September, and they said Margaret was “amazing, brilliant, absolutely phenomenal”.

“She continually reassured us that we’d be fine. And then last Christmas, when Denis was best man at a wedding, she came and minded Eve for us for a weekend so we could go, when she was only three months,” said Elizabeth.

She trained to be a midwife in a hospital near Scotland, before returning to Cork to work.
She trained to be a midwife in a hospital near Scotland, before returning to Cork to work.

The couple are so grateful for what Margaret and the entire neo-natal team have done, that they’ve fundraised over €8,000 so far through various events, with an ultimate target of €10,000.

Another couple were so grateful to her for minding their boy while they too attended a wedding that they nominated Margaret for a Little Big Things award with Skibbereen and Bandon Credit Union and not surprisingly she was successful.

Margaret naturally admits that some days are harder than others in the unit that can cater for 55 babies at its busiest, but more usually treats around 37. Not every story has a happy ending there.

“But the positives far outweigh the negatives. You see traumatic situations bringing out the best in people and the tiny babies are so brilliant. They struggle to survive and they mainly do survive.

“Parents are naturally so distracted when they meet us here, it’s generally the last place they expect to be, and it’s a place they usually never even knew existed, so we have to look after them as well as the babies.”

That’s been the case even more since Covid when just one parent at a time can be with a baby.

“We are literally going non-stop. We might have 10 babies going home one day, and we’d welcome in another seven or eight. But that’s our job,” says Margaret.

Margaret O’Driscoll with baby Eve.
Margaret O’Driscoll with baby Eve.

Not surprisingly, she says you can become attached to some babies given the duration of their stay.

They had one baby who was born in a November, and who didn’t go home until June.

“We became part of their family, and vice versa. Lots of parents are great to keep in touch and we love to see how the babies are progressing as it makes our bad days more bearable. My phone is jam-packed with all my babies!,” she said.

Since Margaret embarked on her career, technology has come on in leaps and bounds.

“I rarely get excited, except perhaps if we had a baby as young as 23 weeks, because the technology is there to bring them along,” she said.

Two years ago, Margaret faced her own health challenge when she was diagnosed with breast cancer during a routine mammogram, which she describes as a ‘really frightening time’.

“I hadn’t felt anything myself and I had been feeling fine. Then, when the lump was found to be cancerous, I was really nervous.”

Margaret underwent radiotherapy and was off work for a period for six months.

“My consultant said that I’d never have found that lump myself. Someone must have been praying for me,” she said, urging all women to attend their routine mammograms.

Margaret will turn 64 this month and her illness has played a role in her decision to retire this year.

“My eldest daughter said to me that maybe it was time to go. And after my radiotherapy I have found myself more tired at the end of a shift,” she said.

Working 12 hour shifts, and 36 -hours a week, it’s certainly a demanding role for anyone. Taking into account her travel time, it’s more like a 15-hour day for Margaret.

She says she’ll miss her work and her colleagues terribly: “They’re a really great bunch. 

"There’s not a single nurse who doesn’t want to work here, and we’ve a great group of consultants. There’s a great sense of camaraderie here.”

Her advice to any parent who finds themselves in the neo-natal unit is not to think too far ahead.

“Take it day by day and don’t look too far head. Some days will be good, and some won’t but they’ll balance out, and don’t be afraid to ask questions.”

As she reflects on her career, she says with confidence that if she had her time back, she wouldn’t change a thing.

“Nursing is very different now compared to when I started. It’s very hard work, you’d really want to love what you do. But I’m lucky as I can honestly say there was never a day I didn’t want to come to work.”

Sarah O’Keeffe of Ballyvolane, Cork, (centre) with her baby son Aaron Cotter pictured with Dr. Brendan Murphy (Consultant Neonatologist) and Margaret O’Driscoll (Clinical Midwife Manager 2) at the Neonatal Unit at CUMH (Cork University Maternity Hospital). Picture: Gerard McCarthy 
Sarah O’Keeffe of Ballyvolane, Cork, (centre) with her baby son Aaron Cotter pictured with Dr. Brendan Murphy (Consultant Neonatologist) and Margaret O’Driscoll (Clinical Midwife Manager 2) at the Neonatal Unit at CUMH (Cork University Maternity Hospital). Picture: Gerard McCarthy 

TRIBUTES POUR IN

A TRULY exceptional, compassionate and caring midwife who was instrumental in setting up the Neonatal Unit in CUMH.

That’s how Lucille Bradfield, Clinical Midwife Manager 3, NNU CUMH, describes Margaret.

“Margaret has touched so many people over the years. She looks after parents and sometimes grandparents, along with the premature babies in her care, fully appreciating their trauma. 

"Her humanity and emotional intelligence is second to none and her caring touch lasts long after they leave the Neonatal Unit, as she keeps in touch with so many, visiting homes and being invited to special occasions as one of the family,” said Lucille.

“While much of her compassion and caring approach goes under the radar, she is not afraid to speak up and be vocal to ensure the interests of babies and their parents are properly represented. 

"She remains a memorable figure in the documentary ‘From Here to Maternity’ in 2012, which led her to being regularly recognised in public afterwards.

“Margaret not only leaves her unforgettable stamp on parents, medical professionals too will fondly recall her teaching. She regularly took junior doctors under her wing to instil the values of neonatal care and share her vast experience on the right way to do things. 

"Many of these junior doctors are now leading professors and consultants in their field, and all will remember Margaret O’Driscoll, the exceptional and knowledgeable neonatal nurse.” 

Lucille said that Margaret will also be remembered by many as the nurse who sings to babies.

“She loves to sing and understands that parents go home a little happier knowing that someone talks and sings to their baby, as they are fed and cared for.

"Margaret has a wonderful pair of hands, that not only expertly put IV drips into tiny veins, but also can design and create wedding dresses, christening outfits and knit Aran jumpers and more. Her baking skills are also renowned, with her famous apple pie winning awards and always sought after in hospital cake sales.

"She is truly selfless, compassionate and courageous – the one in a million that I have had the pleasure to work with and learn from. We wish Margaret a long and happy retirement.”

 Dr Brendan Murphy, Clinical Lead Neonatology CUMH added: “Margaret is an exceptional Neonatal Nurse and her interest in the families in her care lasts long after they leave the Neonatal Unit. We wish her the very best in the next phase of her life.”

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