Memoir Contest Winner: The Angels of Sligo General by Maureen Wlodarczyk

by Matilda Butler on September 13, 2012

catnav-scrapmoir-active-3Post #192 – Women’s Memoirs, ScrapMoir – Matilda Butler and Kendra Bonnett

Announcing First Place Winner in our Memoir Contest Winner – Gratitude is Evergreen Category

Women’s Memoirs is especially pleased to publish the first place winner in the Gratitude is Evergreen category of our gratitude contest. In your daily life, we hope you consider gratitude each and every day. Perhaps the winners of our contest will help inspire you to think about the people that help you.

Today’s winner is Maureen Wlodarczyk with her story titled The Angels of Sligo General.

Congratulations Maureen on your award-winning story. We appreciate you sharing it with our readers.

The Angels of Sligo General
By Maureen Wlodarczyk

I'm enjoying a fresh Irish meal

I'm enjoying a fresh Irish meal

It’s every traveler’s nightmare: a sudden illness or injury during a business trip or vacation . . . in a foreign country . . . and serious enough to require hospitalization.  I lived that nightmare last year while in Ireland.  
We planned to do some day-tripping in County Sligo, the place where my Irish ancestors had lived.  I say that casually, as if just an explanatory comment.  The truth is that it took me over 30 years of relentless genealogical searching to discover and confirm those origins.  So, I had finally come home, returning to the place my family called home over 160 years ago. 
The first day of our planned wanderings in the “old neighborhood” started out smoothly as we drove out to meet an American ex-pat couple who now lived in Sligo and had generously offered to show us around, introduce us to long-time locals and accompany us to the very property where my ancestors were tenant farmers in the years leading up the Great Famine of the late 1840s.  Amazingly, those lush green fields remain undeveloped open land, bordered by the same stone walls that defined them in the days of my ancestors.  
Without a GPS, finding the rural road we were looking for proved a real challenge.  Two stops asking locals for directions got us closer and we made a third stop hoping we were then on the right road.  The third home had a long upward sloping driveway and I jumped out of the car to make my way to the front door.  It was raining…..lightly.   The lovely woman who opened the door was followed by two sweet little girls. After a brief conversation I was relieved to find we were almost there. Coming down the driveway, I remember having a happy smile on my face. My next recollection is my foot sliding on something at the foot of the driveway, me trying desperately to regain my balance, and that famous “slow-motion” feeling ending with me lying on the ground writhing in pain that was centered in my right knee. My husband, who was sitting in the car in the street describes seeing me coming down the driveway, turning away for a second and then looking back to see that I had “disappeared.”  Then he heard my wee voice calling for help. 
So, what had actually happened to me?  I had fallen victim to a wet, slippery cattle grate.  The purpose of a cattle grate, in case you don’t know, is to deter sheep and cows who are found in the countryside from wandering onto nearby residential yards. When they put their little hooves on the metal grating, they find an unfamiliar and disconcerting experience, leading them to turn tail and head in another direction.  So, what I am saying is that if I had the alertness and common sense of a sheep or cow, I might have avoided the fall.  
I was covered with blankets as I lay on the damp ground and an ambulance was called.  I was not to be moved until the paramedics arrived. “Here they come,” I remember hearing someone say when the ambulance drove up.  Soon two capable and gentle fellows, Stan and John, were huddled next to me asking me how I was doing, what happened, etc.  They explained that they were going to give me a mask so I could inhale what I lated called “magic gas,” which would help me deal with the pain and allow me to relax enough so that they could realign my leg and knee and get me onto a stretcher. I inhaled deeply and repeatedly and soon I was in the ambulance.  

I was treated to some Irish humor on the ride to the hospital, which was a good supplement to the magic gas effect. When we arrived at the hospital, I hauled myself up to a sitting position on the stretcher, determined to help with my exit from the ambulance. I reached out, in my semi-stupor, intending to wrap my arm around Stan’s waist.  After a few seconds, I realized that the palm of my hand rested squarely on his “bum” and I quickly apologized for that liberty.  Stan admonished me to “Get that hand off there . . . in a half hour.”  Stan and John were my introduction to the Sligo General medical community and their kindness, humor and gentle care would prove predictive of the rest of my experiences at Sligo General.
I was taken into “Casualty” and then sent for x-rays.  We were shown the x-ray (I could have done without that) and told that my kneecap was broken into two large pieces along with a third small sliver and that I would need surgery to reconnect the pieces with wire and tension banding.  An initial groin to ankle cast was put on my right leg to stabilize the knee pending surgery. Surgery in a strange hospital in a foreign country…..oh boy. 

Mr. Macey, my surgeon

Mr. Macey, my surgeon

Two younger members of the orthopedic team explained that I would meet the “big” guy soon. He was Mr. Andrew Macey, Consultant.   (Doctors are commonly called Mr. rather than Dr. in Ireland.)   I explained to Mr. Macey that I too was a “consultant” that, in the States, means a person without a steady job.   I pretended exaggerated relief that his title meant something quite different and we immediately bonded. A veteran orthopedic surgeon, he patiently answered question after question and his professional, reassuring manner and sense of humor put us at ease. I am a person who experiences strong instances of intuitiveness in my life. I have learned to trust that intuitive sensibility, a gift I attribute to my Irish ancestry.  After talking with Dr. Macey, I was sure I should have him do my surgery at Sligo General.
View from my bed

View from my bed

The surgery went well. I will leave the issue of post-op pain and discomfort to your imagination.  Post-surgery, I was situated in the orthopedic wing in a ward with five other women.  Yes, I said “ward” and “five other women” . . . no semi-private US-style rooms. My bed had no push-button clicker to raise or lower the head or foot of the bed.  And, no, it didn’t have the old-fashioned crank either.  It had to be manually lifted and repositioned into another “slot” or “tooth.”  The ward had one small television, on a stand, and there were no bedside phones.  Being in the bed nearest the windows, I did have a lovely panoramic view of the countryside.  Downside? The shared loo was at the opposite end of the ward.
Claire helped me with physical therapy

Claire helped me with physical therapy

I spent six days in the Sligo General ortho ward working toward being able to make the seven-hour plane trip home to New Jersey. My husband kept vigil with me most of each day and the ladies in my ward quickly adopted him. Mr. Macey prepared me for the trip home, transitioning me from my post-op cast to a hinged brace that allowed limited bending of knee and I was given some physical therapy, all efforts aimed at making it possible for me to board a plane and endure the hours in the air. Day and night the nurses and orderlies were there monitoring pain levels, dispensing medication, and providing physical support in the ward. 

Mary, one of the wonderful nurses

Mary, one of the wonderful nurses

During my six days in hospital, I consistently saw the courtesy, patience, responsiveness and sensitivity of the nurses, doctors, orderlies, physios, and food service and housekeeping staff as they interacted with patients and with each other.  You can tell a lot about people by the way they respond to and interact with the elderly and others who are most unable to help themselves and so the most vulnerable in an institutional setting.  
Patrick in food services

Patrick in food services

One morning, I asked Patrick, who was serving breakfast, if there might be a banana I could have as my stomach was in rebellion after a few days of aspirin-based pain meds.  Patrick smiled and said he would see what he could do.  He returned with a banana and a yogurt that he thought would be good for that upset stomach.  More than that, he also handed me a slightly green second banana saying that he was off the following day and thought I might need it tomorrow . . . and that it should be just ripe by then. That act of thoughtfulness gave me as much comfort as any pain medication. Well, almost as much.
Here I am with Nurse Mary (II)

Here I am with Nurse Mary (II)

During my days in the hospital, I shared stories with the staff and my fellow patients.  I told them about my thirty-year quest to discover my grandmother’s Irish family ancestry and how I finally succeeded and came “home” to Sligo.  After telling my new friends my Irish story, I asked many of them (patients and staff) to tell me about themselves and they graciously did so.  There were personal stories and precious memories that were shared with me, some of them poignant and some that set me to laughing so hard I was breathless, each one a gift. Whether sad or comical, all the stories were uniquely Irish, threaded together with love of country, culture, family and faith. 
Ian from the facilities department

Ian from the facilities department

Not long after my surgery, I had my husband bring my camera to the hospital and, with their permission, I photographed more than three dozen of my new Irish hospital friends including fellow patients, nurses, doctors, aides, food servers and housekeepers. Their beautiful genuine smiles radiate from those photos. A friend looking at the photos told me she swore she could see halos over some of their heads.  I don’t doubt that as, to me, they will always be “The Angels of Sligo General.”
One of the stories I told my ward-mates was that of Asenath Nicholson, an American social worker who visited Ireland just before and then again during the Great Famine of the late 1840s, intent on helping the poor Irish population.  She wrote the book Ireland’s Welcome to the Stranger in which she described the warmth and kindness of the impoverished suffering Irish and the particular generosity of the devastatingly deprived and oppressed Irish Catholics she crossed paths with and who invited her to share their meager provisions.   One hundred sixty-four years have passed since that book was first published but I found the Irish people unchanged in their kindness to another American stranger. 


We invite you to leave a comment for Maureen below.


{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

Donna Kaminski September 15, 2012 at

What a wonderful tale of besting a bad situation. I have always wanted to visit Ireland, and though your story is one of difficulty and upset, you make we want to go even more! I have always heard how wonderful the Irish people are and your account of the care you received certainly convinces me that Ireland is a warm and welcoming place, even if you are in the hospital! Thanks for your story, I feel all the safer and taken care of for it!

Jean September 16, 2012 at

What a lovely story–and thanks so much for including the pictures of your new friends–a face to go with a name always makes a story better. And I so enjoyed your writing. Felt like I was there–and I always love humor in a story (especially my kind!).

Dee Clark September 16, 2012 at

What a wonderful story, I truly enjoyed reading it and was sorry when I came to the end.
A couple of things – were you able to reach any of your relatives by phone? Do you still keep in touch with the wonderful people from the hospital?


claire holcomb September 16, 2012 at

Really enjoyed your essay. I also am from Ireland (way back) and imagine some of the feelings you were having. (Also live in NJ. :) )
Think you did a good job of making this personal,
readable, and informative.
Keep it up–next time just don’t break a knee to
get a story. claire

Janine Stubbs September 16, 2012 at

Maureen, I enjoyed your story. I haven’t been to Ireland, but my husband went with a friend on a golfing trip 10 years ago. He said he met a guy at a store shortly after his arrival and told him his clubs and shoes had not arrived yet and he couldn’t play. The man took him his clubs and SHOES and insisted he use them. So your story corroborates the tale he told of the hospitality of those generous people. I enjoyed your pictures, as well. They added a special touch. Thank you.

Shirley Weeks September 16, 2012 at

I too have an Irish Heritage and have wanted to visit Ireland. Your story was wonderful and the hospitality of the Irish people really permeated the story.
As far as the story, it was so well written and interesting that I was disappointed there was not more! (I really would like to know if you ever got to “explore” your old neighborhood)

Marcy September 16, 2012 at

What a beautiful story Maureen. I enjoyed the pictures of your “Irish Angels”–seeing the faces that went with the kindness and care that you were given. I hope you will again return to Ireland and complete your visit and learn more about your ancestors.

Karen S September 16, 2012 at

Maureen- Congratulations. And what a beautiful story! Loved the photos and the way you connected the past and past-past so effortlessly with people and relationships.

Pauline Melvin Logan September 16, 2012 at

I read your story with interest since I, too, have Irish ancestors in County Sligo. You went to great lengths to get to know the hospital staff who took care of you, and by doing so made the best of a difficult situation. Thanks so much for sharing your Irish adventure with us!

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