Martin Smith in St Peter’s Church Drogheda where he rings the church bells weekly
Twenty three years into life as a mechanical engineer with Irish Cement is not the obvious time for most people to pivot into nursing. Martin Smith however, is not most people. And after an hour chatting about a record breaking fourth year scoring the highest flu vaccine uptake rates nationally, bell ringing, Irish Cement and nursing, you begin to realise how many unexpected and surprising dimensions there are to this particular Drogheda native. Having recently retired from a nursing career in Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital Drogheda, Martin reflects on not so much a job, but many jobs well done. “I loved every minute of it.”
The enthusiasm, vigour and energy in his voice sells his passion. His joy in recalling the twists in his 65 years to date, from how he got into nursing, to outlining how he went from listening to the church bells locally as a child to ringing them on the 100th anniversary of Armistice in 2018 is consuming. And then there’s the local historical tours he gives often times to introduce Indian, Italian, Spanish medical and nursing staff to the area.
His own story takes you back initially to the teenage Martin who clearly revelled in volunteer work:
“When I left school there were no male nurses in general nursing, they were in psychiatric nursing. So at eighteen years of age, post Leaving Cert, I hadn’t a clue even what psychiatric nursing involved. I had been in the Order of Malta for years and I really enjoyed that – the whole caring aspect. I had been on a number of Irish Wheelchair Association holidays helping out and I got so much from that. But there seemed to be nothing there in the nursing end for me so I went off and did mechanical engineering.”
Despite that decision however, Martin says he “never lost the grá or the want to do nursing. A friend of mine who worked in Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital (OLOLH) and who had volunteered with me in the Order of Malta one day asked me if I had heard that they were looking for mature students. She told me she thought I should go for it.”
And he did:
“I applied as a mature student 22 years ago. I was successful, and ended up training here in the north east. It was the best move I ever made – I loved it.” Regrets? “My only regret was that I left it so late because I loved and enjoyed it all so much.”
Martin initially worked on a medical ward for a few years and then moved to Endoscopy (Exploratory Testing) as a CNM l (Clinical Nurse Manager). “I then moved into theatre and loved every minute there too. For years I was also the Health Promotion Co-ordinator for the hospital as well. I seem to be one of those people – I don’t see problems, I see solutions and results. And maybe that’s to do with having come into the service and job later in life. I tend to be positive and have always encouraged those around me to be likewise positive and look for solutions.”
Martin acknowledges the support he received: “I was so lucky to be surrounded by great people – OLOLH CEO Fiona Brady and Director of Nursing Adrian Cleary. They were really encouraging - very professional, positive managers and colleagues.”
Five years ago Martin took on a role that was to provide a national showcase for his leadership skills – OLOLH Lead with the Flu Vaccine Peer Vaccinator Programme. Reflecting on the programme, Martin explains that the appointment of peer vaccinators was a significant development nationally in the move to increase the number of health care staff taking the vaccine: “In OLOLH the year before I took over, the uptake was 14%.
“I was working in theatre at that time and decided to take it on. As a theatre staff nurse at the time I could see the importance for me personally in that role, ensuring that I had the flu jab for the sake of my patients.”
Success was swift. In their first year, Martin’s efforts, innovations and commitment pushed the uptake from 14% to 38%. By the following year it was 78% and within another twelve months it was 93%. And the following year they repeated their success with another 93% recorded.
That success led to the hospital winning the overall national award for highest uptake four years in a row – a remarkable achievement.
However, Martin stresses that he had “amazing support - Fiona Brady, Hospital Manager and Adrian Cleary, Director of Nursing, empowered me to do whatever I felt necessary.”
And while he was scoring high in flu vaccine rates, Martin also continued to move upwards within his career, taking on the role of Practice Development as a CNM ll.
Meet and Greet Volunteer Programme
Parallel with his leading the Flu Peer Vaccination Campaign at OLOLH Martin also set up a Meet and Greet volunteer programme (along with colleague Siobhan Lines). Following an audit, they had established that members of the public coming into the hospital had been finding it difficult to get around: “We all know what it’s like, you arrive in, lose track of where you are and end up lost. So we established a team of volunteers who are there from 9am to 5pm in the hospital – they have their own uniform and volunteer logos – we have around 35 team members at present and it works really well. I’ve met with and interviewed over 200 people in recent weeks and its going from strength to strength. It works both ways – it’s great for the public, it’s great for the staff.” Naturally, all is done within public health guidelines.
But in relation to his substantial role within the Flu Peer Vaccination Programme Martin acknowledges that the strength of the programme and its success is very much aligned with his own skills coupled with the regard with which he was and still is held within the hospital: “I would be very well known in the hospital. I have a great relationship with all the members of staff from every discipline - from the gang in the kitchen to the consultants.
“Five years ago when we first started I contacted our colleagues in the NHS. There was no point in re-inventing the wheel – they had really worked on it and they used the acronym EAST (Ease of Access; Available; Social; Timely) And that’s what we did. We made it available to people going off night shifts and to people going on night shifts. We did it at weekends. People would ring me and say look, it’s half nine on a Friday evening and I am here on a certain floor in the hospital and we are doing nights for the next three weeks and we won’t be able to get the vaccine - so we would just go in and give it to them.
“We made it fun to have it too. We did the poster campaigns - I had to get creative so one of the posters I put up was of the Liverpool goalkeeper saying ‘Get the best defence, Get the Flu Vaccine.’ And when everyone saw that, including the Man Utd fans, they reacted, it got them interested and raised awareness – it was a talking point. And it worked.”
They also employed themes: “Halloween, Christmas, New Years Resolutions in January. We gave our staff all the relevant facts and figures. And we dispelled all the myths. But at the end of the day, it’s about getting in there and giving people what they require. And keeping going at it. If you are not available every day and are not proactively engaging with all your colleagues, you simply won’t achieve the high uptake rates you seek.”
“I loved every minute of it, it’s been great fun. I made great friends from it. I think it’s been very positive for the staff and for myself and of course for the hospital. I had all ranges of staff coming up to me, like the porters, asking ‘how are we doing this year?’ And the emphasis was on ‘we’ because it showed that it had become a communal effort and a source of pride.”
Martin is resolute too in the contribution made by his co-worker and fellow vaccinator Maria O’Callaghan: “The first year there were just the two of us – Maria is a retired nurse and I was fortunate to have her working with me on a part time basis. Maria is unwell at present and my thoughts are with her. She wasn’t able to participate last year but in previous years when we worked together she was just great. She too was available to go in on a Saturday or Sunday morning. If we needed to go in at 7.30pm to 9.30pm at night, she was there. Nothing was ever a chore to her. I couldn’t have achieved what I did without her.
“We were together for three years but when Maria wasn’t available last year, three great individuals Leona Sadlier, Sharon Jones and Barbara O’Brien came to work with me, on a part time basis, and we hit the targets again. But it was always a team effort.”
On retirement, Martin was humbled by the messages and comments, especially on social media where many colleagues thanked him personally in supporting them getting their vaccine.
“I retired on a total high. Four years in a row we were the top achieving hospital. And when I look back now I know I can say we did that.”
Among the calls Martin got from various hospitals asking how he had achieved his success, was one from the NHS in the North. The irony of the NHS ringing him, five years after he had made his initial call there was not lost on him.
Covid inevitably has had a huge impact, and Martin recounts the fear and uncertainty that gripped the hospital as with every other hospital across the globe in 2020. “As everyone else I was nervous and unsure - because of my background I was praying for the vaccine to come as quickly as possible.
“For me, it was a case of being there for my colleagues and giving them every bit of information I could possibly provide on Covid and working through it. It was supporting them. For the community within the hospital, we were a team and we got through it. And of course, we don’t look back, we look forward.”
As with all healthcare staff everywhere, Martin acknowledges the commitment and inevitable exhaustion that all continue to experience and points to the resilience and dedication of all.
With a twelve year old son, Nathan, who keeps him youthful and energised, Martin acknowledges he is very positively disposed to his retirement years. Like everyone else, many of interests have been curtailed because of Covid – and post pandemic he plans to re-engage with his love of travel and plan some trips.
However, he does have a pastime that is local and has not been quite as Covid constrained - campanology. He rings the bells in St Peter’s Church of Ireland church in Drogheda: “They are a great group of people – they have really taken me in.”
As ever there is a story on how he discovered this particular passion:
“I am from the very centre of Drogheda, from Francis St, and the church itself is about a three minute walk from where I grew up. So when I was a child I would hear the bells ringing every day. They were part of my growing up. So, many years later on Facebook, somebody locally on a Drogheda Down Memory Lane post announced that they hated the bells – the noise they made. So I just put up a response to say I loved them, I grew up beside them and they always gave me that warm homely feeling when I heard them.”
And then unexpectedly, he got a response from one of the bell ringers. “They invited me to come along and see the bells and the church. And that was where it all took off – for the last five years.”
As a Catholic, Martin notes that he has been welcomed openly and enthusiastically. “I totally love it – it’s the most cathartic thing I have ever done. You go down there and you totally switch off. We practise on a Wednesday night for an hour and a half and we ring on a Sunday morning for service.”
A history buff Martin explains that he also runs a tour of the town from the hospital: “When we get new nurses in, if they are not local, they may be from India, Spain, Italy – I would bring them on a tour of an historical tour of the town and the Director of Nursing would come with me. And they loved it – its great because it gives them an introduction to the town, seeing things they probably otherwise wouldn’t see.”
That historical interest fits into his bell ringing hobby at St Peter’s Church: “It’s the site of the church that Oliver Cromwell burned down when the people were in it in 1649 and it’s the site that the current church is built on.
“On a personal level, one of my greatest memories (apart from the birth of my son) was on the eleventh day on the eleventh hour of the eleventh month in 2018, when I rang the bells to mark the centenary of the ceasefire during WW1 in 1918. It was very emotional because there we were, a group of people, including me from a Republican family, there with people from the other side of things, and we were celebrating and remembering the Armistice together.
“To be honest there were tears amongst some of the people there. Because when you ring a bell eleven times and when you ring what we call the tenor bell – we have eight bells in our tower – it really brings home how sombre a moment it is and how significant a moment it was historically.”
It is a hobby and pastime Martin intends to keep up.
And so to the historical moment when he formally retired last summer?
“I must be honest – I ended up suffering withdrawal symptoms - work and in particular the flu peer vaccination programme was my life for five/six months of the year. My wife would acknowledge that it was all consuming – I would be at home, maybe in bed and I would have a Eureka moment where I would think of something, like the idea for a poster and I’d sit up and I’d write it down and then go back to sleep!”
And now, several months later? “I’ve been having a good night’s sleep!”
It’s clearly well-deserved as is retirement but you somehow know Martin will continue to fill his waking hours with surprising , interesting and generous endeavours.