A nursing career which includes six years spent as an outpost nurse in a nursing station catering for the people of Northern Newfoundland and Labrador comes to an end shortly when Helen Dreelan retires as matron of St. Vincent’s Hospital, Athy. Helen came to the position in St. Vincent’s Hospital in 1999 and I met her soon afterwards as she was involved with a number of Athy Lions Club fundraising events. Always helpful and never less than cheerful Helen brought a keen sense of shared responsibility and a wealth of experience to the profession of nursing management.
Helen qualified as a registered nurse in Dublin and later worked as a staff nurse in several different hospitals in the capital city. She later took charge as head nurse of the urology unit in Galway University Hospital. In 1987 she joined the Grenfell Regional Hospital services and spent the next six years as the nurse in charge in Mary’s Harbour nursing station in southern Labrador. For the young Ballymore Eustace native, this was an extraordinary change of working environment as she worked in sub-arctic conditions where the temperature in winter times fell as low as minus thirty degrees.
The Grenfell Regional Health Board was established in 1981 to take over operational responsibility for the delivery of health care and social services in Northern Newfoundland and Labrador. William Grenfell, an English doctor who first went to Newfoundland and Labrador in 1892 as part of the Royal National Mission to Deep Sea Fishermen, opened cottage hospitals in the villages scattered along the inhospitable coastline of Labrador. Mary’s Harbour was one of the small coastal villages with a population of a couple of hundred people, situated in the south-east coast of Labrador. In Labrador itself there are three ethnic groups, the Inuit, the native Americans and descendants of European origins. The village of Mary’s Harbour has no roadwork to any of the other towns and villages on the Labrador coast. The nearest village was a 25 min. boat ride or a 10 min. plane trip away. Medical facilities in the sub-arctic environment of Labrador village of Mary’s Harbour were provided by head nurse Helen and another nurse whose day to day work was complemented by visits every four or six weeks by the District Medical Officer and the District Dentist.
Winter on the coast of Labrador lasts from November to early May when temperatures can fall so sharply as to freeze rivers and sea alike. Inshore cod fishing, which is the principal occupation of the coastal villagers in Labrador comes to a standstill in winter, resuming only in May each year. The summer fishing season is short but busy and October sees the fishermen returning to Mary’s Harbour to prepare for the winter. Life as an outpost nurse in the Labrador coastal village, as one can imagine, can be extremely challenging. It was a challenge Helen Dreelan as a nurse from Ireland found simulating during her six years there. She also found enormous job satisfaction in providing a comprehensive medical service for a scattered community whose lives are regulated by the harsh weather conditions which give a seemingly unending horizon of frozen lakes, snow and ice.
Helen took up the position of matron of St. Vincent’s Hospital in 1999 and now, in addition to that role, is also Director of Nursing for the Kildare West Wicklow area. St. Vincent’s Hospital which first opened as a workhouse in January 1844 has seen a large number of both lay and religious masters and matrons in its 173 years’ history. Many of us will remember the legendary Sr. Dominic who for many years epitomised all that was good in Irish religious life and whose charity earned for her the respect and gratitude of many.
Plans for the building of a new 100 bed hospital unit has been developed and approved during Helen’s stewardship of St. Vincent’s Hospital. That stewardship has also been marked by many improvements to both the existing building and to the system of care afforded to patients in St. Vincent’s Hospital. As a nurse manager and matron of the hospital Helen Dreelan has demonstrated admirable management and leadership skills. Looking back at the history of nursing in Ireland we tend to overlook the enormous contribution made by the religious orders to hospital management in the past. Helen was the first lay person in recent years to take on the role of matron of St. Vincent’s Hospital and in remembering her contribution we should also acknowledge and recall the contribution of the Sisters of Mercy who first came to work in the former workhouse in the 1870s.
Our congratulations, best wishes and thanks to Helen Dreelan who will be retiring on 30th June.