Saturday 20 October 2018

'I feel as though I have been used by God for His work and I'm so happy about that'

Former nun Anne Merriman has dedicated her life to bringing hospice care to Africa. Liz Kearney reports

Dr Anne Merriman with local children in Uganda.
Dr Anne Merriman with local children in Uganda.

Even as a little girl, Anne Merriman knew that she wanted to work in the African missions. Inspired by church journals sent from faraway countries to her childhood home in Liverpool, she vowed that one day she would work to help the poor and the sick in Africa.

"We used to get a journal called Echo from Africa and I really looked forward to it coming through the door," remembers Anne. "Even then I said I would go to Africa."

Today, the 73-year-old has been awarded the MBE and an honorary fellowship from UCD for her work in establishing hospice care in developing countries. And a huge amount of that work has been funded by the generosity of Irish people.

Born in Liverpool into an Irish Catholic family, Anne always felt Irish -- but it wasn't until she was 18 that she first came here to join the Medical Missionaries of Mary.

Life was not easy growing up in war-time Merseyside. "We had air-raid shelters in the garden and when the sirens went off, we rushed to the bunkers. A neighbouring house was hit and our windows were blown out. Everything was rationed."

After the war ended, there was more heartache to come. When Anne was 12, her brother Bernard (11) fell ill. Within a fortnight, he was dead from a brain tumour. The family were devastated. Perhaps not surprisingly, as Anne entered her teens, she began considering a career in medicine. Then the local church screened a film about the Medical Missionaries of Mary and the work of its Irish head, Mother Mary Martin, in Africa.

"It was a wonderful film. Going home, I told myself: 'that is what you are going to do'."

At 18, Anne joined the order at their Drogheda house and began a medical degree at UCD.

It was the late 1950s and just under a third of the medical students were women, with eight nuns in Anne's class.

The sisters lived together in a house of studies in Booterstown and cycled in and out of college. They mixed with other students during class-time, but socialising in Dublin's dance halls was not on the agenda.

After graduation, Anne was sent to work at St Luke's Hospital, Anua, in south-eastern Nigeria. Her new surroundings took some getting used to.

"It was so humid I thought I'd die. My feet swelled up until it felt as though I was wearing wellies."

Anne was pleasantly surprised to find the hospital very well-equipped. But when it came to treating the dying, facilities were non-existent -- just like in Ireland. Terminally ill patients were simply sent home to fend for themselves.

"We would say there was nothing more we could do and simply send them home -- without pain control."

Watching those patients sparked Anne's interest in palliative care. That interest was cemented when, 10 years later, she returned to Liverpool to care for her elderly mother and run the geriatric unit at the Whiston Hospital.

By then, she had left the order. "The priests told me I would never fit in anywhere else -- it was like leaving your family. But there were things that I could do better outside the congregation."

After her mother's death in 1981, Anne taught in Malaysia and then in Singapore, where she played a key role in introducing palliative care to the country's medical system.

"I started following up on cancer patients sent home to die. Although Singapore had great oncology services, there was little pain control."

Anne visited patients at home, giving them liquid morphine to control their pain. Her success there spurred her to return to Africa -- this time to Nairobi -- where an AIDS epidemic was sweeping the country and cancer rates were on the rise. The only painkiller available -- codeine -- was too expensive for most patients.

The answer was to provide affordable oral morphine. But doing this without upsetting the authorities was difficult. Women with new ideas weren't always taken seriously.

"Governments are afraid of being labelled as drug traffickers if they allow opiates in, while doctors are afraid of being labelled as addicts if they prescribe morphine," Anne explains. "It was a big challenge."

Gradually, she influenced the authorities to soften their stance, paving the way for the roll-out of the hospice movement across the continent.

To fund this work, Anne founded the Hospice Africa Ireland charity, with an office at Our Lady's Hospice in Harold's Cross. Today there are three hospices in Uganda and the team is working towards training all health workers in palliative care. Anne lives in Uganda but travels widely, lecturing and fundraising.

"I was 57 when I started Hospice Africa, but all my life experience was useful for the project. I feel as though I have been used by God for His work and I am so happy that I was used in this way."

To find out more about the work of Hospice Africa Ireland or to make a donation, log on to www.hospiceafrica.ie

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