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Worldwide meets … Joan McAleesNews

Worldwide meets… Joan McAlees, a retired nurse from Larne to hear about how a hymn sung at Bangor Worldwide had a life changing impact on her.

Joan McAlees
Joan McAlees

So, Jean, tell us a bit about yourself. Where did you grow up?

I was born in Belfast but at the age of 10 was evacuated to Ballynahinch with my mother and young sister, following the Belfast Blitz. We attended the Methodist Church there. It was through their Sunday School that I became interested in Overseas Missions.

What was your first experience of Bangor Worldwide?

We moved back to live in Belfast in 1944 and a few years later, whilst attending a Convention meeting in Bangor, I felt God’s call. It came through the hymn It may not be on the mountain top that the Lord will have need of me…” Initially, I couldn’t sing the words of the chorus: “I’ll go where you want me to go dear Lord, and I’ll be what you want me to be.” I was challenged and then prayerfully I responded as we sang the last verse and chorus. Even though it happened decades ago, I clearly remember that night!

What happened next?

In May 1949, I started General Nurse Training in the Belfast City Hospital, this was followed by Midwifery and then a course in Tropical Diseases in Edinburgh. On returning to Northern Ireland I gained experience in various fields of nursing.

Early in 1956, I was accepted by the Methodist Missionary Society and then went to Kingsmead the Training College in Sellyoak, Birmingham, for one year. During that time, I was designated to serve in the Madras Diocese of the Church of South India.

I travelled by ship to India in September 1956 and three weeks later arrived in Madras. After only a short time at Language School I was sent to Vellore Medical College Hospital to do a Nurse Tutor Course and to continue language studies.

It was here that I first encountered the work of The Leprosy Mission when I visited the leprosy centre and colony at Karigiri. As the nurse there was in great need of a few weeks’ leave I agreed to help out. I worked alongside Dr Paul Brand, the world renowned leprosy surgeon, accompanying him on ward rounds, and learning about his pioneering treatment and surgery for people with leprosy.

My time at Vellore and Karigiri put me in contact with so many wonderful people. This experience and those contacts helped me enormously when a short time later I began work at Nagari Hospital.

Nagari Hospital was part of the work and witness of the Church in that area, it was small but very busy. A clinic for leprosy–affected people was held weekly adjacent to, but outside, the Outpatient Department. As Nursing Superintendent I was able to change its location and moved the clinic inside; this helped to challenge stigma and to show acceptance for those with leprosy.

I referred many patients to Dr Paul Brand including one 16 year–old–girl whose hands were already showing signs of clawing. Dr Brand operated and when she returned to her home she came to see me and with joy exclaimed, “Look at my new hands!”

We held a roadside clinic every Thursday. It was common practice to give patients with foot ulcers a pack to do their dressings at home. Instead, I insisted the patients had their dressings done by staff as well as receiving a pack to take home with them.

Tell us about some of the people you came across.

A man who attended the clinic, Abbu Reddy, asked me if I would buy something for him the next time I was in Madras. He had heard stories of Jesus touching and treating people with leprosy and wanted a picture of Jesus. I was able to get a roll with pictures which showed Jesus touching and healing people with leprosy and other diseases. The next week at the clinic Abbu Reddy sat with the other patients and told them the story. As the group looked at the picture of Jesus touching the man suffering from leprosy he said, “Before Jesus came no–one would come near or touch people like us.”

A woman newly diagnosed with leprosy, Lakshmi, had a severe reaction to one of the leprosy drugs, and had to be hospitalised. Her husband, despite still loving her, had made her leave their home. On learning that she was a patient in Nagari Hospital, he came one afternoon, climbed up, spied his wife through a window, receiving care. I was supporting Lakshmi while nurse Yesamma was trying to get her to take some food. Later, he told me he was amazed that strangers should show her such love after he, her husband, had rejected her. As a result, he decided to take her back again.

How long did you work in India?

Unfortunately, for health reasons I wasn’t able to return to India following furlough in 1962. After several months I joined the staff of the newly opened Ulster Hospital where I worked until I came to Larne in May 1969, to take up the position of Matron of the Moyle Hospital. I was Director of Nursing in Larne, Carrickfergus, and Newtownabbey District when I retired in 1990.

Do you still maintain links with The Leprosy Mission?

Since 2003, I have been the link person for The Leprosy Mission for the Methodist Circuit in Larne and help to raise money for this worthy cause.

With thanks to The Leprosy Mission for permission to reprint this story that was first published in their magazine, InTouch.

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