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2005-01-04 Sheila Donaghy makes my New Year resolutions appear relatively trivial

I am not one for making New Years resolutions. I am a firm believer that one should constantly strive to better oneself  not only for a week or so at the beginning of January.

 

There are times, however, when I find myself in someones company, and I quite honestly feel humbled by their good work. Sheila Donaghy is one such person. From Barnasrahy, Sheila attended Knocknarea National School, later joining us in Mrs Cookes class at The Model, sharing a desk with yours truly. I recently chatted to Sheila over a cup of coffee at Fiddlers Creek.

My jaw dropped steadily throughout the conversation as I attempted to absorb Sheilas mind-blowing auto-biography. So much water under the bridge, since I had presented her proudly with a Smokers Own keyring, for Valentines Day at the age of 8.

After leaving Sligo Grammar, Sheila trained under the old Irish matron system at Sligo General Hospital. Hers was a very hands-on training, alternating her School of Nursing classroom studies with anything from ward-duty to bed-pan cleaning.

Living nextdoor to Verdons Pub on The Mall, Sheila was not a party animal, but rather a quiet conscientious student, fulfilling her childhood dream of nursing. As a young R.G.N., Sheila went on to train as a midwife in Scotland, spending two years as a midwife in the Isle of Man.

Theresa McLoughlin, a student friend from Arigna, suggested travelling together on a short nursing contract abroad. Before long, the two girls found themselves in at the deep end, working in Romania with children who were dying of H.I.V. and Aids. Sheila later managed a Romanian Childrens Hospice for three years. A year after the fall of the Ceaucescu regime, it had been suggested by her employers that she take up drinking and smoking to get her through the contract, but it was Sheilas "devout faith and trust under Gods guiding hand" which was to see her through this and all her following assignments abroad.

A major turning point came when Sheila witnessed the dead body of a young gypsy boy being wrapped in his bed sheet, and then flung, in a most undignified way into an incinerator. Sheila believed that "that boy deserved more in life, and in death."

In 1994, Sheilas long association with World Vision began when she was employed as a post-genocide health worker to Rwanda. Mrs Gallaghers French verb and grammar drilling at Sligo Grammar had stood Sheila in good stead for her work in these French-speaking African nations. There, Sheila worked in Unaccompanied Childrens Centres, providing health, nutrition and relative-tracing, for children who were either orphans, or had been separated from their families. Each centre housed up to 300 children, who had been extracted from Internally Displaced People Camps, which often had anything up to 120,000 people.

A Rwandese lady, having discovered Sheilas nationality, felt sorry for Sheila coming from a land ravaged by war for almost 30 years. "Ours has only lasted three months", she said. Mounds of earth signified mass graves, the smell of death pervaded the air, and the young Sligo nurse slept at night in her tent, with her headphones on, in order to block out the clamour of gunfire and grenade attacks.

In 1997, Sheila was sent to Honduras, as a health worker and a trainer for traditional village midwives. She often had to walk anything up to ten hours to the remote villages. One day, on her way to the city to buy essential equipment, the weather turned for the worse. Seconds after her bus crossed a ramshackle bridge, a mudslide washed the bridge away. Hurricane Mitch had arrived, and Sheilas work in Honduras then became divided, to include disaster-relief work.

Sheila moved on to witness racism at its worst amongst the Roma populations of Montenegro, to work in healthcare in Uganda, to attempt to help the women behind the veil in sexist, war-torn, drought-ridden Afghanistan, to set up feeding centres in the rebel-ruled East Democratic Republic of Congo, and most recently in Iraq.

Sheila is at present also studying for an MSC in Disaster Relief Healthcare. A programme close to Sheilas heart is the Child Sponsorship Scheme, of which 90 per cent of the total income goes directly overseas. If interested, see www.worldvision.ie Phone : Dublin 4980800. Somehow, New Years resolutions seem somewhat trivial.