Veteran nurse raised funds by writing plays

Sat, Jun 13, 2009, 01:00

Mona Grey: DR MONA GREY, who has died in her 99th year, was the diminutive but redoubtable nurse who was Northern Ireland's first chief nursing officer in the department of health and social services from 1960 until 1975. During this period she played a central role in restructuring the management of the hospital and community nursing services and introducing the training of health visitors.

Mona Grey was the daughter of missionaries and was born and brought up in Rawalpindi, in what is now Pakistan. She attended St Bede's, the teachers' training college in Shimla, where she obtained a diploma, but taught for only a short time.

Deciding on a career in nursing, she came to England to train at the Royal London Hospital at Whitechapel, where she qualified as both a state registered nurse and a state certified midwife. Promoted to ward sister, her standards were high and she expected attention paid to every detail. It was said that under her regime, even the bed castors had to face the same way, dust and dirt were simply not tolerated and the nurses' uniforms had to be starched to perfection.

During the second World War, she became the youngest night matron for the hospital. She would remember with sorrow how, during the blitz when the hospital took a direct hit, she had stood helpless, watching a patient disappear as the floor disintegrated beneath the bed. "There was nothing I could do," she recalled.

In 1946, Grey was asked to go to Belfast to establish the Northern Ireland branch of the Royal College of Nursing. An appeal was launched to establish a permanent headquarters and training centre, and she raised £58,000 by writing pageants and plays that were produced by her great friend the comedienne and drama teacher Gwen Gracey Johnston.

These massive events were put on at the Empire Theatre and involved nurses from the different hospitals, choirs, amateur dramatic and opera societies. The hospital joiners discovered new skills from constructing the scenery.

Grey had enormous energy, a forceful character and great charm that made it impossible for people to refuse her. She would underline their resistance by blowing a kiss and say: "Darling, we need your help."

Everyone willingly gave up their time, the carpenters missed football matches and going to the pub, but the camaraderie and enthusiasm brought to these productions made them such fun for the participants that they remember them with nostalgia.

As well as raising money from these theatricals, she promoted and publicised health visiting, midwifery and the nursing profession in such spectacles as A Cavalcade of Nursing through the Ages, The Immortal Tapestry and, lastly in 1955, Miss Carson Retires.

Another fundraising event was when the then governor of Northern Ireland (a position abolished in 1975) and his wife, Lord and Lady Wakehurst, opened Hillsborough Castle to the public for a day. Eight hundred were expected but 1,600 came. Provisions ran out, so Grey redirected a hospital food van to solve the problem.

In her retirement, she carried on her commitment to nursing and, even at the age of 98, continued to exert her influence and contribute to the debate and discussion on the future of the profession. For many years, she campaigned to improve the quality of residential care for older people and made a significant contribution to the new Nursing and Midwifery Council standards for the care of the elderly.

One of her interests was the stock market, and she was also fascinated by Florence Nightingale and the history of nursing, so she endowed the Mona Grey lecture on this subject. As a vice-president of the Florence Nightingale Foundation, which gives scholarships to nurses, she funded a scheme in which a trainee nurse travels from every university in the UK for the annual Students' Day at St Thomas's Hospital in London.

At the University of Ulster, in addition to the Mona Grey Lecture, she helped to establish a research chair in nursing.

The university awarded her an honorary doctorate in 1999. She was made an honorary vice-president of the Royal College of Nursing, and was the first recipient of the RCN Northern Ireland lifetime achievement award.

Mona Grey: born September 24th 1910; died May 27th, 2009