As It Happens

Manchester nurse moved by bombing victim's strength: 'She was absolutely inspirational'

Joe O'Brien treated patients undergoing surgery for serious shrapnel wounds the night of the Manchester Arena attack. When one of them smiled and thanked her, it filled her with hope.
Joe O'Brien treated patients wounded in the Manchester bombing in the surgical ward of Stepping Hill Hospital. (Stockport NHS)

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The first thing Joe O'Brien did when she heard the news of an attack in downtown Manchester was call her son, Declan, to make sure he was OK. The second thing she did was head to work to treat the wounded.

These are the worst injuries that I've ever personally seen.- Joe O'Brien, surgical nurse

O'Brien arrived at Stepping Hill Hospital as the injured were arriving. She headed to the surgical ward, where she's a nurse, to open up the operating rooms. The people who had shrapnel from the bomb rip through their limbs would spend much of the night being stitched up.

"[It was] absolutely awful, really. I've worked in [operating] theatres for 28 years and these are the worst injuries that I've ever personally seen," O'Brien tells As It Happens host Carol Off.

Two women wrapped in thermal blankets stand near the Manchester Arena after the bombing at a concert on May 23, 2017. (Andrew Yates/Reuters)

"The pieces of shrapnel, large nuts and bolts, sort of an inch across maybe, they're travelling at high speeds, so they go into a limb and out the other side and just cause trauma all the way through ... The magnitude of it was quite shocking, even more so because you knew that this was a deliberate action."

"It must have taken great strength from her. I'll always remember her.- Joe O'Brien

O'Brien was part of a team that performed surgery on a woman with shrapnel embedded in her legs. Before the injured patient went under anesthetic, she smiled at O'Brien and thanked her. The woman smiled again after the operation when her husband arrived, O'Brien believes, to reassure him.

Women pay their respects to all those affected by the bomb attack, following a vigil in central Manchester, Britain May 23, 2017. (Peter Nicholls/Reuters)

"She was an absolutely inspirational person to me," O'Brien said. "It must have taken great strength from her. I'll always remember her. That's the sort of positive thing that I like to think comes out of an event like this ... I was just a little part of a big team that helped that lady, but I've got absolutely no doubt that somebody like that wouldn't even think twice about helping me."

The woman underwent a second surgery on Thursday, but is recovering well.

As for O'Brien, it wasn't until her shift was over that she was able to react to the horror of the attack.

Charlotte Campbell, mother of Manchester Arena attack victim Olivia Campbell, and stepfather Paul Hodgson at a vigil in central Manchester, Britain May 25, 2017. (Stefan Wermuth/Reuters)

"I did have a really good cry the next morning," she said.

"I put the news on to see what actually happened and I saw this poor, poor lady asking for information about her daughter, who she couldn't find, and ... it took me back to how frightened I was for Declan, my son, when I woke up and heard [the news] on the radio."

A police cordon blocks a street near the Manchester Arena in Manchester, Britain May 24, 2017. (Jon Super/Reuters)

Her other moment of reckoning was when the police asked her team to preserve the wounded people's clothing and belongings in bags — along with the uncleaned metal pieces they had removed from their patients' bodies.

"It would be needed for evidence," she said."That brought it home that it was a criminal act, that somebody had done it and there was evidence."