On the 28th May 2016, my aunt, Sr. Dr. Ann Ward, died in Drogheda, County Louth – she was 87. To say she was an extraordinary individual who had done greater deeds than anyone I’ve ever met is by no means an exaggeration. In short, she devoted her life to others and used her immense medical skills to pioneer a technique that either saved or vastly improved the lives of many Nigerian women that society had abandoned. She worked around the clock saving these people. If they did not have money, it did not matter. At the funeral, I was told by a no nonsense sort of gynecologist that Ann was by far the greatest obstetrician and gynecologist to ever come out of Ireland. In talking about Ann before flying over to Ireland, a senior officer in the British Army who heard her story said no general ever did anything coming close to what she had achieved, nor could they – she was constantly saving lives, gratis. I was honoured to read her eulogy and repeat it here so that others may hear of how greatness can be achieved without fanfare, bombast or self aggrandizement: her accomplishments were all done with complete humility.
You can shed tears because she is gone
Or you can smile because she has lived
You can close your eyes and pray that she’ll come back
Or you can open your eyes and see all she has left
You can remember her and only that she’s gone
Or you can cherish her memory and let it live on
You can cry and close your mind, be empty and turn your back
Or you can do what she’d do: smile, open her blue eyes, love and go on.
Auntie Ann would not thank me for saying anything too gushing or too complimentary about her – that was just her way. It’s a Donegal thing, or more probably, a Ward thing.
“Please don’t write about me,” she once protested. “The focus needs to be placed on the women who suffer this terrible condition, and on the services that need to be put in place to bring relief and proper treatment” she added.
She was talking about her pioneering work in the field of obstetrical fistula, usually vesico-vaginal fistula (VVF). In Nigerian communities where women’s rights were not valued, I’d like to think if there was any saving grace to these horrific situations, it was that someone as serene and kind as my dear aunt and her team were there to help these women at Itam. No one was turned away for inability to pay. Her work was what she was proudest of, not for any recognition for herself. She was blasé about the numerous awards and honorary doctorates she received, it was ONLY about her patients.
“The arch-enemy of compassion is pity” she once famously opined “Pity puts distance between you and the person you are pitying. Compassion puts the two of you on the same level, enabling you to work together to change the situation, or at least to make it more bearable.”
In those words, you have the essence of the woman – insightful, composed, candid, kind, profound and gracious. This was a woman who did not suffer fools gladly, there was little if any small talk with her and she wasn’t what you might call ‘touchy feely’ – on bounding towards her at a retreat in England in 2005 with my arms thrown open, I was crisply told that “Wards don’t hug“! She worked in an environment that few, if any of us, could possibly imagine, never mind endure; but she did so, year in year out with just a Summer break back to her dear old Donegal every second year.
All of Ann’s nephews and nieces loved her dearly and were extremely proud of her – the late Brendan, Jimmy, Marian, Peter, Kathryn, Ann and yours truly. My mother, Marion, and my aunt struck up a great friendship and were like sisters to one another, sharing many happy moments with chat, song, and bridge. I was lucky enough to be her trusty companion, her Man Friday on many such excursions in Donegal. On my travels with Ann, I knew I’d always see an older, gentler way of life, one with an easy charm and a coterie of school friends that you’d be happy to meet up with anytime.
My Uncle Junior owned a Ford garage in Castlederg and would usually give Ann a car with what he’d call ‘a bit of zip‘. Every second summer was free flowing full throttle motoring in a souped up 2-litre Capri and we loved it! We’d a few hairy scrapes, mainly through her abhorrence of using indicators, but our nearest disaster happened when I had started to take on the driving chores. Approaching Dungloe to see her beloved Daniel O’Donnell perform at the Mary from Dungloe festival, she let out a scream and showed me that Wards could indeed do hugs as she cowered at the sight in front of her. It was in fact a bungee jumper buckleaping from a crane as the sun set and was a scary reminder that her normal habitat was somewhere without such frivolity.
My late father, her brother Johnny, was never one to wax lyrical about one of his own, but I do recall him saying to me in a near reverential whisper that in travelling with Auntie Ann, I was in the presence of a saint. But lest we put her on a pedestal, you will no doubt know she was a woman of many more temporal talents.
Whilst we loved her dearly, we were not blind to the fact that she had the guile of a Medici prince, and had a will of iron. She got her own way through the force of her personality, but it was only because of her commitment to her work. She’d a slight maverick streak, My sisters Ann and Kathryn and cousin Marian were at her bedside on Friday recalling her insisting on Ann Jnr smuggling in her two dogs Buffy and Twinkle through the window who then curled up on her bed. Ann’s room reflected her right down to the little cuddly toys. There’s the famous photo of her and the Pope, but she only looked truly star struck in her picture with Daniel.
She could sing – oh boy, could she sing and when she did, like her driving and her smile, she could stop traffic such was its euphony and purity. George Eliot wrote “Life seems to go on without effort when I am filled with music.” Ann was filled with such a deep love of music. For her, the hills were alive with the sound of it, be it classical or with her very own Daniel or Susan Boyle.
I’ve had the pleasure of seeing her get a hole in one in golf, at the 16th hole in Narin some time back. The fact that she went pin high onto the wrong green is but a minor technical detail and was quietly overlooked in the scorecard! I have a lot of happy memories from my times with her – she never treated me like a kid and could sense that I was always curious to see where our next adventure would take us.
Sometimes, those adventures involved sadder memories. Once we had an afternoon of ice cream eating planned after a visit to my Auntie ‘Peter’ Hally who was in hospital in Dublin. While Ann went to see the doctors, I chatted freely to her sister about important matters of the day such as Dallas and the rise of Duran Duran. When Ann came back, I sensed that something was not quite right. Ann of course carried on as before – engaged, chatty and interested. Only when we got to Bachelors Walk for the Knickerbocker Glories did she let her true emotions show as she broke down and cried at knowing that her beautiful sister had cancer.
I remember her calling me to say they’d taken her Daniel away. After getting her calmed, she told me she had being robbed yet again and the one thing she was heartbroken over was the theft of her signed Daniel O’Donnell picture. Daniel did of course replace it and would meet her in happier times. I recall festooning her room here in Drogheda with the Donegal colours of green and gold for the 2012 All Ireland final and we had a right good time along with Marian and Robbie Robinson shouting the house down as Michael Murphy and the lads soared to capture the Sam Maguire – my apologies again to the staff for our unrestrained exuberance!
Few of us will ever possess her prodigious skills – her great brain, her dedication, her sang froid, her great hearty laugh. What we can aspire to though is to emulate her own deep sense of compassion, of forgiveness, of reaching out to those less fortunate; the forgotten, the shunned, the condemned. Do some simple act of kindness once a day and when it’s done, smile and quietly salute Ann Ward.
After my grandmother left for London in the 1930s, my grandfather, the late great PJ Ward, reared the three Ward children as best he could with the aid of his two sisters, Agnes and Bridget, but there must have been a lot of hurt for the youngest child in seeing her mother leave them. With any luck, they are all reunited and at peace now. Some people get busy living and some get busy dying from hurt and wrongdoing: for Ann, that choice was the former. She told me herself that she remembers being woken up with a calling around the age of 16 and from that day forth, she knew she would devote herself to others as best she could.
‘As best she could’. Those words, that sentiment – ‘I did the best I could’, is sadly downgraded and diluted these days. It is used as an excuse for patchy work and mediocrity. Ann, however, was from another time and her work ethic and singular focus was phenomenal. As always, she was modest and pragmatic about what she had done. When her peers at University College Dublin, presented her with the Distinguished Graduate Award for outstanding achievement in the field of medicine, she told them, “If you found yourself in the same circumstances I work in, you would have done just as much as I have done.”
Dear sweet Aunt, for the countless thousands of women around the world whose lives you have improved through your pioneering techniques and devotion, let me thank you for all that you have done. Few get to make their mark on their world like you did. We live in dangerous times – we look helplessly at how ego and bluster is likely to be rewarded with high office in America. As is the way of the world, the true heroes and heroines, like you Ann, keep their heads down and just get the job done with zero fuss.
Let me also pay a quick tribute to some other heroines; those kind individuals who made her last years so peaceful and comfortable – the matron and the staff at Aras Mhuire. And to Marian, Kathryn and Ann who made sure she knew she was parting this Earth knowing that we all cherished her by bringing levity, joy and love to the occasion, as Ann would have wanted.
Saying hello to you was always a pleasure; saying goodbye to you now is an occasion I’m honoured, if saddened, to do on behalf of all those who’d the privilege of meeting you along the way in your many roles: -
pioneer, surgeon, Medical Missionary of Mary, youngest child, loving sister, valued colleague, friend of the forgotten, last hope for the despairing, Daniel O’Donnell’s undisputed No. 1 fan, chanteuse supreme, blue-eyed beauty, the ultimate cool aunt: goodbye and safe travels, partner.