'Some of my friends think I'm a bit bonkers'

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The Independent Online

Before her husband, Geoff, died from a brain tumour 20 years ago, Maureen Cummings, 61, had always wanted to nurse abroad. Now, one month after retiring, she and her daugher, Rachael, 27, also a nurse, are to join Voluntary Service Overseas. Maureen is off to western Siberia to work with cancer patients, while Rachael is bound for Cambodia.

Before her husband, Geoff, died from a brain tumour 20 years ago, Maureen Cummings, 61, had always wanted to nurse abroad. Now, one month after retiring, she and her daugher, Rachael, 27, also a nurse, are to join Voluntary Service Overseas. Maureen is off to western Siberia to work with cancer patients, while Rachael is bound for Cambodia.

Maureen Cummings

It's a pure coincidence that we are setting off at almost the same time. We first got the idea from my other daughter, Rebecca - Rachael's twin - because she taught English with VSO in China for two years. I thought it was a wonderful thing to do, and I thought I'd like to put something back in for all the good times nursing has given me.

My husband was a very loving, caring man, and his death affected the children very much. In the case of Rachael and Rebecca, I think it really brought them closer together. It certainly made them stoical little cookies, determined and quite resourceful. The four of us - the girls and their older brother Laurence - worked well as a unit. We didn't have any time for squabbling and bickering; we just got on with it.

My last nine years in the NHS have been as a MacMillan nurse providing palliative care to terminal cancer patients. Palliative care as a speciality is relatively new here, but it was almost unheard of in the former Soviet Union until recently. VSO has got me a post with a Russian organisation called Hospice Volunteers, and I'll be working in Chelyabinsk in western Siberia, a place known as the most radioactive city in the world.

The nuclear industry has left a multitude of medical problems. I will be teaching methods of palliative care. I don't yet know what drugs they have out there, but I believe they have so far seen morphine-based medicines as being addictive and problematic, whereas morphine has been our drug of choice for treatment. I think addiction is the last of your worries when you have a terminally ill patient.

I believe I'll be living in a flat during my initial year-long contract. VSO is very supportive, so I feel comfortable going with them. The training is very good, and I've been told a lot about what to expect - that the people are very warm and helpful, and that the weather is very cold and I'll need lots of thermal stuff and a big hat! But as you get older, I think it's easier to deal with cold than heat and uncomfortable humidity.

Rachael will be nursing and teaching in Cambodia, where, of course, there are lots of victims of landmines. I am very proud of her. I think she's very brave. She has always wanted to travel, too - she worked in Israel for a year - but instead of just going off to Australia, she's doing something useful first. I'm sure she'll make a huge success of it. I was so proud when she became a nurse - my mother, Marie, was a nurse, too, so it has become a bit of a family tradition.

Some of my friends think I'm a bit bonkers but I'm quite excited - although there is also some trepidation - and it means I finally get to travel and have my adventure.

 

Rachael Cummings

My mother is a remarkable woman. I think it's wonderful that, at the age of 61, she's prepared to try something like this to help other people. She's always been very determined and resourceful. When my father died, there were lots of people telling her what to do - to sell up, to move here or there - but she just did things her way. I think his death brought us closer together as a family. I remember seeing my friends' families bicker or fall out and have feuds, but we never did that.

I decided some time ago that I'd like to do more travelling with my job. I think my mother was pleased I became a nurse, although she never pushed me into it or anything like that. I'd like to head to Australia eventually - I know some of my friends will be there by the time my VSO finishes - but I thought it would be good to do something useful first. I've been specialising in orthopaedic trauma - broken bones - so, with all the landmine problems, I hope my teaching there will be useful. I'll be based at a place called Stung Treng in the north, on the border with Laos.

I do worry a little bit about my mother, but the worry is about little things, like her slipping in the snow, which could happen when she's at home anyway. She's a very young and active 61, so I'm sure she'll thrive in Chelyabinsk and I'm sure they'll love her and not want to let her go. She's been on the phone a few times asking me what the hell she's doing, leaving her family and her lovely home in the Lake District, but then she thinks of the adventure and just needs a little reassurance.

She was a strong woman even before my father died, so we always assume she'll be OK whatever she decides to do. She's very courageous and I know she's quite fatalistic about death because she has always worked around it. She did a great job bringing us up to do what we wanted with our lives - Rebecca is a teacher and Laurence, our brother, is a musician - and we're all very grateful for that.

I think she's happy that I'm doing VSO as well, but I'm not so sure she'd be happy for me to be going where she's going because of the possible radiation there and the effects that might have later if I wanted children.

The only down side about all this is missing her. We're still very close and try to keep in touch regularly. When Rebecca was doing her VSO, we went out to see her in China, so perhaps we'll find some way of getting together during my two years.

In the meantime, it should be a great experience for us both, and, as far as my mother is concerned, it should be a wonderful inspiration for older people.

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