A FORMER member of the Arranmore Island RNLI crew has been elected President of the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation.
Karen McGowan (35) becomes the youngest person to lead the largest Irish professional union for nurses and midwives.
The second eldest child of Alice and Eddie McGowan, Karen said that she was very proud to be from the island and was looking forward to be the voice for the union’s 40,000 members during her two-year term.
Although it’s a full-time position, Ms McGowan is hoping to continue in her job as an advanced nurse practitioner in Beaumont Hospital.
Speaking to the Donegal News from her home in Ashbourne, Co Meath, this week, the new INMO President paid tribute to the support she has received from her nursing colleagues in Donegal and across the country.
“Mum and dad were extremely proud when I rang to tell them the good news last weekend. I’ve five brothers and one sister so we had an interesting house growing up – there was always at least one fight going on,” she laughed.
A past pupil of Gairmscoil Mhic Diarmada, Karen first left the island to study nursing in DCU. She did her training in Beaumont and has remained there since.
“I went straight into the ED (Emergency Department) after qualifying and did course after course and ended up as Clinical Nurse Manager before becoming advanced nurse practitioner. I treat and discharge patients that would present with an array of symptoms like chest pain, shortness of breath as well as ear, nose and throat issues. There’s always plenty of work for us to be doing,” she said.
Running parallel to her nursing career has been her role within the nurses union.
“I’ve always had a keen interest in fairness and equality within nursing. I first became involved in local issues within our own ED and then moved into national talks and discussions over more recent years. I became part of the National Executive four years ago and served two terms on the Executive Council,” she said.
Karen is very proud to be taking on the baton from another Donegal woman, outgoing INMO President, Martina Harkin-Kelly. She will be supported in her work by Eilish Fitzgerald (1st Vice President) and Kathryn Courtney (2nd Vice President).
“Martina is a formidable woman and I’ve learned so much under her reign,” she said.
Married to a Dubliner (Vinny) the couple have one daughter Holly, who is almost three, with a second child due in early November.
A native Irish speaker, she talks to Holly who recently started play school in her native tongue.
“I’ve just three weeks to go until I have another little one so I like to multi task and be kept busy,” she laughed.
Pre Covid-19, Karen used to get back to Arranmore once a month but she’s just managed to get home twice this year – in January and for a week in August.
“It was a different time (August). Donegal was going well (Covid numbers) but I was still careful. I didn’t stay at home. I rented a house on the island. I love coming home
“I married a Dub, Vinny, and we live here in Ashbourne so there’s still a country feel to the place but that’s the price you pay sometimes for doing a job that you love,” she said.
Karen was inspired to become a nurse at the age of six, after seeing the care provided to her father when he was hospitalised.
“Growing up I always had a keen interest in medical matters. I was a crew member on the island’s lifeboat and after 5pm in the evening we had to act as the island’s ambulance, helping sick people and making them as comfortable as possible as we took them by boat out to an ambulance waiting on the mainland.
“There was a thirst for knowledge. Coming from an island you always want to help out – it’s a way of life – everybody helps one another. When the chips are down you pull together and I hope to bring those attributes to my new role within the INMO.
“I was told that I’m the youngest president and that brings its own pressures. It’s a massive honour and I relish the opportunity to be the one to apply that pressure,” she said.
Working as a front line emergency nurse, Karen witnesses on a daily basis the incredible work her nursing colleagues do.
“I’ve also seen how the health system lets them down and there are a lot of challenges ahead. There’s the ongoing problem of recruiting and retaining nurses. It’s been well broadcast over the years and I’ll be pushing to get that issue resolved.
“The health and safety of nurses and midwives during the pandemic is also a major, concern. They’re essential workers who are necessary to maintain the health of the nation and I will work to the best of my abilities to represent them,” she said.
“I’m a proud islander and Donegal woman. I’ve been overwhelmed by the messages of support I’ve received from colleagues back home and across the country. I will be a strong voice for nurses and midwives and I will make no apologies for that,” she said.
While it’s going to be a busy few years for Karen McGowan and her young family she also hopes to keep working in Beaumont.
“It’s a role that I would be quite keen to continue in. I would still like to be hands on and work part-time on the front line but I’ll have to try and come to come sort of agreement with my line managers and the INMO,” she said.