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People of the Year Awards

Monday, 14 September 2009

The People of The Year Awards were broadcast last Saturday on RTE 1. The host for the evening was Grainne Seoige.

We have two of the winners Eleanor and Steve with us today.

The winners are chosen by members of the public through a nominations process and finalised by a panel of adjudicators. The Awards include the International Person of the Year, the Young Person of the Year (under 25 years of age) and a special award in 2009 for the Nurse of the Year. In addition, there are a number of People of the Year Awards presented for achievements in the areas of community service, sports, and arts and culture, among others.

The prestigious annual event was organised by Rehab and sponsored by QUINN-healthcare.

Eleanor Thomson

The story of how Eleanor Thomson befriended and cared for a complete stranger, ensuring that he died with dignity and surrounded by love, is so full of compassion and human empathy that it reads like a modern-day version of the Bible's Good Samaritan tale.

Two years ago, following a diagnosis of cancer, Eleanor travelled regularly with a group of fellow patients on the mini-bus from her home in Dundalk to St Luke's Hospital in Dublin. On one journey her attention was drawn to a man who seemed apart from the rest of the group. He was clearly in a lot of pain and spent the entire trip shuffling in his seat and groaning in discomfort.

Much later, Eleanor was to learn that the man's name was Kevin and that he was suffering from bowel cancer. But back then, all she saw was a man who seemed unable to walk a few yards into St Luke's on arrival.

Despite having completed her own radiotherapy treatment, Eleanor continued to make the long journey to St Luke's in Dublin to visit Kevin following his re-admission. She would pick up his mail at home in Dundalk and get other necessities for the sick man.

When he was eventually discharged, Eleanor would pop around to see how he was doing and began cooking his meals, looking after his shopping and helping him with other everyday tasks that illness prevented Kevin from carrying out himself.

Eleanor continued her vital care for a year, visiting Kevin daily. She didn't pry into his private life, but learned a little more about him. "I didn't know his life story," said Eleanor. "I knew the little bits he told me and I know there was a time in his life when he was down on his luck and he became a client of the Simon Community. I knew that he lived alone, and had no family whatsoever living in Ireland.

Kevin stayed with Eleanor and her twin 24-year-old-daughters, Gillian and Judith, over Christmas and was then invited to spend every weekend at their home. But soon after Kevin developed a secondary cancer in the groin. Eleanor vowed to help Kevin and brought him to her home to spend his remaining days in as much comfort as possible.

Kevin lived for six more weeks, during which Eleanor became a full-time carer, even moving a mattress into his room so she could give round-the-clock care. She washed him, looked after his personal care needs, and sorted out his medication.

It was a real family effort, with Gillian and Judith following their mother's example, from massaging Kevin's leg to get the swelling down, to making pots of tea for the carers who supported Eleanor.

After a month of good form, Kevin's health went into rapid decline and he slipped into unconsciousness. He died a fortnight later on February 27th 2009, just days before his 51st birthday.

It was the end of a remarkable friendship that Eleanor, for all her gifts of care to Kevin, feels has enriched her life greatly. "I honestly believe that each and every one of us is put on this earth for a reason. If my reason was to serve Kevin for the few years that I did, I can say my life has been worth living."

Sister Bernadette Lanigan

Many Irish nurses work longer, harder and with more commitment than is demanded of them. But in Temple Street Children's University Hospital, there's going above and beyond the call of duty and then there's Sister Bernadette Lanigan.

Bernie has run the eye clinic for almost 27 years. She is central to every area of patient care, an unsung hero to the 10,000 children who visit the facility each year for investigations, tests, admissions or surgery.

The huge number of nominations she received for a People of the Year Award from the children in her care show that Bernie is more than just respected for her professionalism and the attention to duty. They love her because she loves them.

Regardless of whether they attend the clinic for just a short time, or are long-term patients, Bernie establishes a unique relationship with each and every child.

But it's not only their fear and anxiety that Bernie tries so hard to ease. Her kindness and extraordinary devotion to duty extends to their parents - all of whom seem to get her mobile number and know that they can ring her if they experience problems inside or outside her working hours, seven days a week.

When parents face the daunting task of travelling overseas for specialist treatment for their child, Bernie provides invaluable support, communicating with healthcare authorities and specialists abroad and even booking travel and accommodation.

In her daily work Bernie is something of a contradiction; while she may speed around the eye clinic in a whirlwind of activity, she always has the time for a kind word or gesture to parents and children.

One such child is 12-year-old Michael O'Connor: "She is the kindest person I have ever met and is always there when something is wrong. Anytime I had to have a cornea transplant, Bernie was always the first one in the hospital to organise the theatre and any equipment needed for the operation and she always visited me in the ward before I went to theatre. Whenever I am waiting in the outpatients for the eye clinic, Bernie always calls me in to the examination room and I have heard her voice saying my name so many times that I can now even imitate her voice. Bernie deserves this award because she has worked hard for her entire career as a nurse and stands out above everyone else in the hospital in my memory," he said.

Bernie's workplace can sometimes be intensely pressurised as she is called upon to deal with stressed parents and screaming children and administers care while also supporting the doctors and specialists, answering phones, responding to faxes, organising theatre lists and managing the queues and the clinic in general.

Utterly approachable, parents sometimes receive emails and text replies as late as 1am and as early as 5am, as well as telephone calls at the weekends asking about their children. Bernie is also the point of contact for parents needing reports for schools, the Health Service Executive, the local doctor, pharmacies, the Department of Education and Science, and more.

She is a role model and trainer to her colleagues and puts tremendous effort into fundraising for the eye clinic. She manages from start-to-finish the production, advertising and sale of Christmas cards which raise much-needed funds to buy specialist equipment.

Bernie, the consummate professional, continually challenges herself to stay ahead of new techniques in her field. She has many academic qualifications, has been involved in many research programmes, and is held in high regard by specialists across Europe and the United States.

And in addition to writing papers for medical journals, Bernie makes appearances at parents' supports groups for their fundraising and family days, as well as speaking at professional medical conferences throughout the world.

Despite all of this, her unwavering focus is on the thousands of children who attend the Temple Street eye clinic, for whom she is there day-in, day-out, morning, noon and night, for that extra personal touch that is her unique calling card.

For her unparalleled dedication, care and love for the children who attend the eye clinic in Temple Street Children's University Hospital, Sister Bernadette Lanigan is the Nurse of the Year.

Interview with Eleanor

How did you get to meet Kevin?
I traveled down to Dublin in a taxi service organized by the hospice for people going for treatment in St Lukes. I met Kevin when I saw he was in a lot of pain and I got him some assistance as he was very disorientated. We traveled down Monday to Friday but he was so ill he had to stay in the hospital.

I would call in every day to see if he needed anything and then when I came home at weekends I nipped in to see if he needed anything. He only lived a few miles up the road from me. He was in a one bedroom bungalow. He was a client of the Simon Community. I didn't know he was homeless but he was for a couple of months. They put him in a shelter for awhile and then gave him the home to live in.

When he came out of hospital I used to visit him and we became friendly. Women loved him. From last August his health was going down hill. We found out he had a cousin was in Waterford. He was originally from London and his twin brother was in The States and a sister in Canada and three brothers in England. He lost contact them for 18 years. With the help of the Simon Community we managed to contact them and he got to see them.

Then at Christmas I said to him to come round to me over Christmas and New Year. And we got chatting with my girls and they got to know him as well. His biggest fear was to be bed ridden and to be shoved in somewhere with no interaction. I said that when that day comes you can come stay with me. Within a week he took a bad turn and was back in hospital.

After a week the hospital called and said that he said he could come stay with me. I said that was ok. When he got to stay with me he lasted 6 weeks - 4 of the weeks he was in great form. I had loads of help with community care nurse, Pallative Care Nurse and the Simon Community helped out too. They were all women who loved him.

How did your children react?
The kids were good about it. Yes it was a change and it did affect them in that their privacy was taken away. They couldn't have their boyfriends in all the time. But they gave up their space for Kevin.

You were sick yourself - where did you find the strength to look after him as well as yourself and the girls?
From the day I was diagnosed I never ever had a days worry. I am a Christian and the day I was told I had the peace of God coming over me. I realized everything is going to be alright and so far everything has been clear. I believe Kevin and I were meant to meet Kevin. A few days after my surgery the girls found me painting the ceiling.

A promise:
When Kevin passed away the Simon Community looked after his funeral. I promised him I would visit his grave once a month. A few others do it too. He is buried in a Simon Community plot. The undertakers donated for him. He was loved by everyone.

On her nomination:
I was flabbergasted at my nomination. But that's just me.