‘to America’

‘to America’

Connie awoke with the rattle of the drinks trolley. She had found it difficult to sleep on the plane with the excitement of travelling to America. Always the first in her family to do things she really hoped that this trip would be something special.
‘Break the mould!’ her grandmother had said to her.
‘Do something different, you can change the world for the better.’
Now she was flying to the United States for a summer placement in one of New York’s most prestigious teaching hospitals. She was the first of her generation to attend University, and now was, the first to fly to America.
‘A great opportunity’ she had been told.
Connie reflected again on the day Professor Greene had asked her to come to his office.
‘Come in Connie, take a seat.’
Tentatively she had sat before the great man’s desk.
Lancashire born and bred, with a very informal approach, he always got things done. He had arrived in the 1950s as the youngest professor of medicine at the University in Belfast. Confident and brilliant he had cut through the institutional mire of departmental politics, to create a medical faculty which was now pioneering some of the best orthopaedic innovations to be found anywhere in the world.
‘How do you feel about going to the States for the summer?’ he said, direct to the point as always.
Connie was taken aback but managed to reply,
‘I couldn’t afford to do that professor I have to find a summer job to help me through my next year and anyway, what would I be doing going to the States?’
‘A friend of mine from medical school is leading a team of surgeons who are literally at the cutting edge of orthopaedics. I’m just back from a visit and I think you could learn a lot by going there and observing them in action. My friend is keen to share their experience with this department. I don’t have three months of time to spend there, much as I would love to, but you could.’
‘Professor you know I would love to have the opportunity but I’m not from a privileged background like the majority of your students.’
‘I’m well aware of your circumstances Connie and that’s why I’m prepared to put in for a short term bursary for you to cover your travel costs and some expenses. Dave says you can stay in the hospital student accommodation where all your meals would be covered. You would also receive some remuneration for any work you carry out.’
‘Are any of the other students going?’
‘Nope. Just yourself.’
‘Forgive me Professor, I’m not used to being spoiled. Why me?’
‘Connie you’re now in your second year of medical studies. I’ve been aware since you arrived in this department of your … what I would call your strong instinct for cutting through all the intellectual verbiage and getting straight to the root of a problem. You are highly motivated. I mean, how many times have I arrived early for lectures to get prepared and you are there already greeting me with a pleasant ‘Good morning’ or ’Hello professor’. Being a good doctor Connie is not just about understanding the science of medicine or being able to handle fancy medical terms which patients struggle to even pronounce. It is also about having empathy with the patients who may be suffering psychologically as well as physically. My friend Dave has these qualities but he also has a very common sense practical approach to healing and leads very much from the front. I think, you, of all of the students in this faculty would benefit greatly from the experience of working with him. One of the things I have noticed about you and admired’ is your willingness to share what you learn and your great ability to be a team player. I know you will bring this experience back to the department and enthuse your fellow students. It is a great opportunity.’
Connie sat looking at the professor filled with a strong sense of pleasure and excitement. ‘My God if my mum and dad had been present to hear that.’
Eventually she had said,
‘Thank you Professor. May I reflect on what you have said. I will give you my answer tomorrow after I have discussed it with my family.’
That had been back in April. Now in July as they approached the landing at John F Kennedy Airport Connie thought about the tension she had felt when she had to talk to her parents.
It was after nine, in the evening, when she got home. She had stopped off at the library to follow up a number of references and had found it difficult to concentrate. She kept playing the Professor’s offer over and over again in her mind and how she might approach her parents. ‘They must understand – this is the opportunity of a lifetime – I’m the only student from the whole faculty to be asked – costs will be covered and I’ll probably earn a few dollars that can be put towards next year’ and so it went on.

Her mother had been sitting darning some socks with the radio tuned to Radio Eireann as always. ‘None of that BBC propaganda in this house‘. It wasn’t that her mother was a militant republican but it was one of her little protests against what she saw as the BBC’s insistence at promoting one culture over another. Her father had come in before Connie and was making tea. While the kettle was boiling he lifted the porridge packet to begin making breakfast for the next morning. As the tea was brought in Connie couldn’t wait any longer and blurted out, ‘I have some news for you.’
They had listened without comment until she had related everything about her meeting with the Professor. Her father had sipped his tea and her mother had continued to darn the socks whilst hers cooled. When Connie finished it was her mother who spoke first.
‘I can see what you’re saying and I think it’s great but are you going to earn enough money to cover all your extra university costs. Your father and I have helped as much as we can and even with the grant you get you know you might just get through. Your brother’s saving to get married and your sisters deserve the same opportunity as you. To keep this home and everything else, food, clothes it takes every penny your father earns, it’s always tight Connie. What you earned during your summer break certainly helped to offset some of the university expenses like those medical books you’re expected to buy. I just don’t know.’
Her father had given her a hug and said ‘Well done’, but agreed with her mum that ‘things weren’t too good‘. The gas works which employed him was in decline, oil and natural gas had seen to that. There was the likelihood of men being paid off. Finding work elsewhere was always difficult in a sectarian city, where the name of your street and the area you lived in meant that certain firms would not employ you.
Connie had sat sipping her tea feeling totally deflated. She said ‘Goodnight’. When she slipped into bed beside her younger sister cuddling into her for some comfort, she had lain awake for ages thinking how unfair life was. If she had come from one of the privileged backgrounds of the majority of her fellow students she would now be planning a trip to America.
Eventually she had drifted off to sleep and it seemed like no time until she heard a voice calling her name ’Connie, Connie’.
Realising she wasn’t dreaming, she awoke with her dad kneeling beside the bed whispering her name and gently touching her shoulder.
‘Dad, what’s wrong?’
‘Nothing’s wrong love. Your mother and I had a chat after we went to bed and we both agreed no matter how tough this could be financially, your chance to become a doctor should not be compromised. You go to America.’
Connie hugged her father and kissed him on the cheek. As always, he got a little embarrassed when one of his girls spontaneously expressed their love for him in this way.
‘There, there, come on now, I better get down and make the porridge which didn’t get done last night or nobody’s having any breakfast. I’ll be late for work too’
He looked at her in the semi-darkness and said, ‘Don’t worry girl, we’ve had tough times before and there might be tougher times ahead, but, this chance, you grab it with both hands. Your mother and I are very proud of you. You be the best. Get out there and do what none of the rest of us had the opportunity to do.’

The plane bumped down on the runway and Connie smiled as she remembered the elation of jumping off the bus that morning and practically running into Professor Greene’s office
‘I’ll go, I’ll go, thank you Professor.’
She had almost hugged him but instead reached out both her hands and clasped them around his long fingered right hand. Looking him straight in the face
‘You will never regret giving me this opportunity.’

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *