On International Nurses Day, Ray Tubridy spoke to Ken Healy, whose mother, Betty, was awarded the Florence Nightingale medal for Nursing by the International Red Cross in 1967. This was, of course, a tremendous achievement for Betty, but, impressive as it is, it doesn’t really reflect the extraordinary work she did as a nurse in unprecedented conditions for an Irish nurse. By the time Ken was born, his mother had already had enough adventures to fill an Oliver Stone movie.
“In the early 60s, my mum got involved with a charitable organisation and went to Vietnam in 1963.”
What a time to go to Vietnam, as Ryan remarked. The war between North and South Vietnam was well under way at that stage and Betty spent a lot of her time there dealing with refugees from the conflict. She was also involved in vaccination and in setting up an operating theatre in Quy Nhon. And although she wasn’t involved with the military, because she was in a country at war, she did have to get trained in self-defence:
“I have a picture of her holding a gun, a rifle of some sort, because they had to give all the nurses some sort of small weapons training in case they ever had a problem.”
Ken told Ryan that he has another picture of his mother, this time holding something a little less deadly – a baby, born by caesarean section after the death of its mother:
“On the back of the picture, it has, written in her handwriting, it says that the baby was delivered by C-section 15 minutes after the mother’s death. So, the mother had been shot and a US army medic managed to deliver the child and save it.”
The Vietcong played a part in Betty’s remarkable story too. Bear in mind that she was only 23 when she travelled to the war-torn country to volunteer as a nurse.
“She was captured at one stage by the Vietcong. I don’t know how long she was in captivity, but she was ultimately released by – or rescued, would be better? – rescued by the US military, the US forces, herself and few other nurses and other westerners.”
So, Betty went from training in St Michael’s Hospital in Dún Laoghaire to nursing in Vietnam, before being captured by the Vietcong and rescued by US forces and all before she was even in her mid-20s. It’s quite the beginning to any career.
“She got the Florence Nightingale medal in 1967 for nursing. And up until only a couple of years ago, she would have been the last Irish woman to receive it.”
Of course, when Betty returned to Ireland and got married, she had to give up her job because Ireland in the 1970s. You can hear the full chat between Ryan and Ken about Betty Healy and her further adventures by going here.
Niall Ó Sioradáin
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