‘Seeing young friends die from Aids I wished I could help’
John Fiddler went from being an undocumented barman to a palliative care nurse in New York
John Fiddler: ‘I now look across at Ireland, my birthland, and seriously contemplate returning to live there again.’
This article forms part of a new series for Irish Times Abroad on the opportunities worldwide for Irish healthcare workers.
John Fiddler is a 54-year-old palliative care nurse practitioner, who left Ireland for New York in the 1980s.
Why did you emigrate?
I wasn’t planning on staying in new York; I only went to visit friends from art college. I had no idea then that I would overstay my visa, live undocumented in a new country, and eventually pursue a career that would help me realise myself on so many levels.
What was New York like when you arrived?
It was the end of the beginning of the devastation of the Aids pandemic in New York City, but only the beginning of the end for so many gay men living there. I arrived into a fading world, and a community that was activated and dynamic. Of course, I became a bartender; money was cash and tips, and life was urgent but exhilarating.
How did you go from bartending to nursing?
Seeing young friends die I found myself wishing I could help. I clearly remember a friend suggesting I should become a nurse.
In Ireland, the idea of me -or any man- becoming a nurse had never entered my head. I had a defined image of a “nurse” in my mind: a woman with a starched white hat and a red cross to bear.
But the idea took hold, and I followed the steps to become a nurse. I took advantage of the visa amnesty programme that was on offer at the time, which allowed me to stay in the US legally. I entered nursing school and went from bartender to registered nurse in four years. The American system worked if you filled out the forms and followed instructions... things just worked.
Rightly or wrongly, I felt and still feel that this country at least allows you to try to succeed, if you want to.
Rightly or wrongly, my impression of Ireland was, “sure ye can fill out the form, but don’t necessarily expect a reply.”
Where was your first nursing job?
After graduation, I was immediately hired into critical care nursing on New York’s most prestigious burn unit, at a shockingly high wage. A part of me was in disbelief; for years I “watched my back” in that sense.
The world of nursing took me to the frontlines of our human experience, psychically and physically. One of the most memorable experiences of my career so far was tending to the many unmentioned victims of 9/11 who survived for months after the attack.
Where has your career taken you since?
Inspiration to “do more good” found me joining Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders (MSF), because now I could.
An interest in end-of-life issues led me to a Master’s degree and certification in Palliative and Hospice Care, which is what I do now. I love it. I’m good at it.
After almost three decades in the US, would you ever move back to Ireland?
I now look across at Ireland, my birthland, and seriously contemplate returning to live there again. I love my friends, my creative generation; I love the skies and sea.
I have kept my connections tight, and they have kept me. I was there when my mother died in Dublin, as she wished in her own bed, on hospice care. I was humbled and impressed by the care she received.
I closely follow the news and I am aware of the challenges nurses in particular face. But somehow, despite the trolly list and the stories of student nurses working unsupervised for hours with no pee and terrible pay, I feel there still may be a place for me there.
Weeks ago, I emailed a simple question to An Bord Altranais regarding applying for certification as a nurse to practice in Ireland.
I have not as yet received any reply.
This article forms part of an Irish Times Abroad series focusing on healthcare workers. Where are the job opportunities for those interested in moving overseas? How do salaries and working conditions compare? And for those currently working abroad, what are their options if they want to move back to work in Ireland? Irish healthcare professionals already working overseas, from dentists in the UK to psychiatric nurses in Tasmania, have been sharing their experiences with readers. See irishtimes.com/abroad for more.