Nurses begin to testify in Muckamore Abbey Hospital inquiry

Nurses have started to give evidence at a public inquiry into abuse of patients that took place at a learning disability hospital in Northern Ireland.

A former nurse’s testimony was the first to be heard as part of the staff evidence sessions at the Muckamore Abbey Hospital Inquiry.

The inquiry has been examining the issue of abuse of patients at Muckamore Abbey Hospital in County Antrim to determine why it happened and the circumstances that allowed it to happen.

The hospital, run by Belfast Health and Social Care Trust, provides inpatient services to people with learning disabilities.

It has been at the centre of a long-running investigation into reports of patient abuse by staff and, as a result, is set to close down in June 2024.

Christine Keenan, a former nurse at Muckamore Abbey Hospital, told the inquiry on 13 November that she had never witnessed any abuse of patients at the hospital.

Ms Keenan worked at the hospital between 1973 and 2015, first as an enrolled nurse and then as a behavioural nurse therapist.

She said she worked mostly with children in their teenage years.

During the inquiry hearing, the retired nurse told of her personal experience of the working environment in the hospital.

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She recounted several incidents where patients had harmed her, saying that she had been injured “hundreds of times”.

“I have been grabbed, hit in the face and told by a [Muckamore Abbey Hospital] patient that he was going to rape me,” said Ms Keenan.

In one case, she explained that a patient had become so agitated and frustrated that they threw a fire extinguisher at her head.

Ms Keenan said: “I had to sit down because of the shock.

“Had the fire extinguisher hit me, I believe that I would have been seriously brain damaged or possibly dead.”

Despite saying she was once described as “the most injured member of staff” at the trust, Ms Keenan said there were few times where there were deliberate attempts to harm her.

“I cared very passionately about my work and I would not have stayed if I had seen abuse of patients”

Christine Keenan

She told the inquiry that, without building a relationship with patients, it was not possible to change their behaviour.

“You have to be in direct contact with them and a lot of the times you are putting yourself in the firing line because you are going to get the behaviour and sometimes you just accept it,” said Ms Keenan.

However, she did note that nursing staff “didn’t really get any support” if a patient had harmed them or caused injuries.

In addition, she explained that often when staff got injured, they did not fill out accident forms.

“In many ways I think people just accepted it and felt it was part of the job,” said Ms Keenan.

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Reflecting on the allegations surrounding Muckamore Abbey Hospital, Ms Keenan said it had been “difficult to hear about incidents of abuse” in the media coverage of the inquiry.

“I cared very passionately about my work and I would not have stayed if I had seen abuse of patients,” she said.

The retired nurse described working at the hospital as her “calling” and said she found it difficult to leave.

However, since the revelations about the abuse that took place there, and the subsequent inquiries into the hospital, she said she found it “difficult to say that I worked there”.

“I had been proud of my work at MAH,” she said. “Now I am not sure when and where I can talk about my nursing career.”

Tom Kark KC, who is chairing the inquiry, said at the start of the hearing that it was important to “encourage staff to come forward” to testify about good and bad experiences at the hospital.

“We need to hear about good practice at the hospital as well as poor practice,” he said.

This phase of the inquiry is due to finish in February 2024 with more nurses expected to give evidence in the coming months.

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