People of Jobcare-meet Muriel O’Brien

People of Jobcare-meet Muriel O’Brien

Aug 28

Meet Muriel O’Brien. Muriel is a participant on Jobcare’s transitional work programme, working as part of the team responsible for our Community Employment administration. Muriel is an ‘overcomer’- having overcome multiple major back surgeries, she is now working to overcome unemployment. Muriel’s unassuming perseverance and “can do” attitude is an inspiration. And now she’s undertaking an 11 mile walk in aid of Jobcare! We had to find out more.



So Muriel, completing an 11 mile walk means more for you than for most of us. You have a history of back problems…

Well yes. I developed curvature of the spine when I was a teenager. So, age 15, I had to have a number of surgeries over about six months to put a rod in my back to straighten it. Between that and recovery, I missed quite a lot of school around fourth year. I think as a result I didn’t do as well as I could have in my exams, but I finished school and went on to do a secretarial course. I suppose that’s where my administration work began- I worked in office admin, secretarial and reception work. About six years ago, I was working in a solicitor’s office, but my job finished amid the recession. My back was starting to give out on me at that time, my balance was going and I was falling, so I had to consider surgery, but I knew it was going to be a tough surgery and tough to get over.


So you underwent the surgery?

Muriel O'Brien August 2015 scan

Yes, in 2010. It was a ten-hour surgery to fuse my back from near the top of my spine down into my pelvis so that I now have two rods and approximately twenty-eight screws going down my back. It was a difficult surgery and a long and painful recovery. I spent twelve days in hospital, followed by time in a nursing home and then I had to stay with my parents for five months. I could hardly lift my foot up off the floor so, aged forty-four, I had to learn to walk again. I had no energy; even to walk a few feet took an awful lot out of me. So in the early days I was going from my bed to a high-backed chair nearby, then chair to bed. I couldn’t do a lot of things, like lifting anything heavy. I needed help getting washed and dressed. I couldn’t even tie my shoelaces. I had to start all over again and it took me a long time. After a while, once I had people with me, I was able to walk up and down the road, then to the shops. I’d see people rushing around, people going to work, and think “I can’t do that”. I remember thinking “Will I ever get better?”, but I reassured myself that they wouldn’t have done the surgery if I wouldn’t get better.


It sounds like a mental battle as well as a physical one.

Absolutely. It took me a while to get back to “me” again. I felt very vulnerable after the surgery. I had to adjust to a new body shape. I was more upright, but I had to wear a back brace after surgery which meant I had to wear clothes that were much bigger. I couldn’t do things that I had enjoyed in the same way, so I had to learn how to adjust so that I could still do things, just differently. I used to play indoor bowls and I thought I’d never get back into playing that, but now I use a different technique so I can still play. I’d set myself goals and tried not to say “I can’t”, but to think “I want to do this. How can I do it, maybe in a different way?”


Support from friends and other people was crucial. There’s an online forum for people who’ve gone through a similar thing- mainly people in America and some in the UK. People swap stories, talk and support each other. I got really practical advice there, like putting a black refuse sack on the car seat to help me swing my legs around to get out of the car. And friends were so important. Two friends I played bowls with would come and bring me out for coffee to garden centres. I was able to walk slowly around the garden centres and chat with friends. Then I’d come home and lie down for a few hours!


I always try to concentrate on what I can do, not what I can’t. So as part of my recovery, I organised a quiz and raised €1,600 for the Spinal Injuries Unit in the hospital where I had my surgery so they were able to buy equipment for the unit. It helped me to concentrate on other things and set myself a goal. It took a long time, but I feel like myself again. It’s a holistic journey, both the physical and mental part of recovery.


So you’re in good shape now?

Yes. Just a check-up once a year now. My lumbar pain has all but gone. I have limited flexibility- I have to bend from my hips if I want to pick anything up off the floor. But I’m out and about, getting on with my life. I had a friend who was into walking so, once I was walking again, I started to walk with him. I’d meet him and go for walks from Dun Laoghaire pier down to Sandycove and back- that would have taken an awful lot out of me, but gradually it got better and better. I would set myself goals to walk a bit further each time. The longest I’ve ever walked was for about four hours. Sometimes I count the amount of hours I’ve walked. Since I’m not able to walk as fast as the average person, where someone else might walk for an hour, I’d have to walk for two hours to cover a similar distance or to feel the benefit. But I enjoy it. I’ve even hiked Maulin and Djouce a few times. When there’s a lot of stuff going on, when I go walking at the weekends, that all goes- it helps me to keep positive, it helps me to focus.


And what brought you to Jobcare?

Well, like I said, my job had finished in the recession before I had my surgery, so I had no job to go back to. Once I was mobile again, about a year after the surgery, I found the National Learning Network and I went there and upgraded my office and computer skills. My energy was still quite low and I remember going to do the course on the first day and having to come home and lie down for a couple of hours afterwards because I was so exhausted! I finished the course there and applied for a few jobs. Then I saw an ad for the Community Employment work programme in Jobcare so I applied for that. I had my interview on the day of my birthday, and started here last April, 2014.


So you’re doing an 11 mile walk!

Yes. There was a team taking part in the women’s mini-marathon this year and I knew I wouldn’t be able to do that with the crowds, but I wanted to give something back to Jobcare so I came up with this idea to do a walk myself. So this Saturday (29th August) I’ll be walking from Wicklow train station to Greystones DART station- along the railway line starting at the Murrough-Killoughter-5 Mile Point-Newcastle-Kilcoole-Greystones. I have a friend who’s going to walk with me and carry my bag for me. It’ll take me a few hours so I’ll need supplies!


So why are you walking in aid of Jobcare?

Jobcare has helped me; I want to help them. My confidence went way down and Jobcare has helped me build up my confidence again. I’ve worked in different roles here, in the Resource Room and with the Community Employment admin team, and I’ve realised again that I do have a lot of skills. I can do a mix of different roles. Now I’m thinking, “I CAN do this! I CAN get out there and work again!” Working here has really benefitted me socially as well, working as part of a team, doing things for other people. I’ve got back my sense of humour. I really enjoy it here and get on well with everybody. It’ll be difficult to leave, but getting that more permanent role will be the icing on the cake for me. It’s taken me a long time to get here, but my motto is “Never, never give up”. Losing your job is hard, but don’t give up. If I can do it, so can anyone else!


Jobcare’s huge thanks to Muriel for her work, her commitment, her example and her inspiration as well as her fundraising.


To support Muriel and make a donation, just click here.