Spirit of Northern Ireland Awards: A lifetime of devotion to sick children

An extraordinary nurse who went above and beyond for the families entrusted to her care is the winner of our Spirit of Health Award sponsored by Henry Brothers.

Hildren’s palliative care nurse Deirdre Armstrong (59), a mother of three from Downpatrick, was dedicated to comforting families facing the worst kind of loss: the death of a child.

Deirdre worked as a pediatric Macmillan clinical nurse specialist for 22 years before retiring in February this year.

Unable to leave the profession completely after 40 years of service, she continues to work part-time as a bank nurse.

During her nursing career, Deirdre traveled around Northern Ireland day and night caring for very young children with terminal cancer.

Often the first point of contact for ailing parents, Deirdre has always been there to provide unwavering support when it was most needed, visiting children in holiday homes, on her own holidays and even at Christmas.

Admitting it wasn’t an easy task, she tells us: “We would go into the community and link children’s families to their local children’s community teams.

“Fortunately, most childhood cancers can now be treated very successfully.

“Unfortunately, every year there are children who do not survive.

“It’s very difficult. Fortunately, through the hospital, I was part of a large team who are all very committed. Everyone wants the very best for every child and we all feel terribly upset if we lose one of our patients.

“It can be difficult to deal with, but you get through it by supporting each other. Although it is always very sad for us, it is nothing compared to what the family is going through.”

She is married to Alan and has an adult family of three, Ruairi (31), Aisling (30) and Orla (26).

Deirdre has left her mark throughout her career, which started when she was just 17 and trained at the Royal Victoria Hospital.

She spent her early career as a nurse in the Royal’s pediatric burn unit – another challenging role. “That was very tough. Mostly it was children who were burned as a result of an accident at home.”

When she was in her twenties, her husband’s work moved them to Manchester, where they stayed for 12 years and started their own family.

There was a shock to the young couple when shortly after the birth of their first child Ruairi was discovered to have suffered an injury during pregnancy and doctors predicted he would face many challenges both mentally and physically.

Thanks to his mother who constantly advocates for him and allows him to reach his full potential, Ruairi has exceeded all expectations and is independent and works full time.

Deirdre believes that having a special needs child has helped her be even more empathetic in her nursing job. She recalls: “At that time, I was working as a pediatric nurse in the community with children with complex needs and life-limiting conditions.

“I was really drawn to take care of them. I set up a support group for special needs families in the area who continued to meet after we left Manchester. My personal experience really played a part in that.” Before returning to Northern Ireland, Deirdre also volunteered one day a week at the local children’s hospice, sparking an interest in palliative care.

When she got home and saw the Macmillan pediatric clinical nurse specialist position being advertised, it seemed ready for her.

She applied and was delighted to get the job she has filled with dedication for the past 22 years.

She worked in the pediatric cancer ward at the Royal Victoria Hospital and was one of only two Macmillan specialist pediatric nurses in all of Northern Ireland. During her career, she also became involved in research to develop nursing care in her field and spoke at international conferences about the best nursing practices for children suffering from cancer.

She has also lectured at Queen’s University and taught nurses and doctors how to safely administer chemotherapy.

Her nomination sums up her: “Deirdre has delivered this extraordinary care with a humble, understated and kind heart. She is my superhero of health. She deserves recognition as the Spirit of Health for her dedication to sick children over many, many years.”

Deirdre says she was shocked when she was recognized in our awards: “It’s a huge surprise and I really cried when I was told I had been nominated. I feel very humbled and honored.”

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