Looking after the old and infirm was instilled in one veteran nurse from an early age. THEO PANAYIDES meets a woman with old-fashioned values who, with her husband, may well have changed more dressings than any other couple in Cyprus
It begins symbolically, on the road to the village of Peristerona where I’m due to meet Demetra Simadiakou. I’m stuck behind a pickup truck going infuriatingly slowly, and there’s too much traffic coming from the opposite direction to overtake. I’m worried about running late – then suddenly the truck stops altogether, right in the middle of the road, and the driver gets out.
He’s not the doddery old man I’d assumed from his driving, but a strapping young chap in sleeveless vest and wraparound shades who looks like he’d be at home on the beach in Ayia Napa. Striding confidently, he raises a hand to halt oncoming traffic, then does the same to the cars piling up behind him. I wonder what’s going on – then notice a small creature scurrying across the asphalt, with the young man in pursuit: a kitten has somehow strayed on to the main road, and the brawny young man (who looks like he eats kittens for breakfast) has stopped the traffic in order to rescue it. It takes a few moments – the kitten is slippery – but he finally grabs the thing by the scruff of the neck, strides to the side of the road and gently deposits it out of harm’s way, then gets back in his car and continues driving.
Demetra, I’m sure, would approve, even if her own philosophy focuses more on rescuing people – but especially the old and sick, the human equivalent of kittens. How we first meet is a story in itself, going back to early March (just a few days before coronavirus struck) when I dropped into Nicosia General Hospital looking for someone I’d heard about, an elderly gentleman who apparently hangs around the place helping patients navigate the labyrinth of where to go and what forms to fill out. I never did find that obliging volunteer – but I found Demetra, a veteran nurse with a voluble air and take-charge personality who knew the man I was looking for (turns out he’s an ex-employee at the hospital) and informed me that she too plans to come back and continue helping people after she retires, a sentiment she repeats at the house in Peristerona: “I can’t imagine leaving. If I left the hospital, that’d be it for me”.
The house is shared with her husband Michalis, a refugee from Zodia a few miles away across the Green Line (it’s refugee housing, built on Turkish Cypriot land) – and also a lifelong nurse, he in A&E, she in orthopaedics, both of them commuting into Nicosia every day for decades. They met at nursing school, and have been married for 35 years; they have a daughter, Maria, who works as a physics teacher, and a six-month-old grandson. Michalis is also a lifelong diabetic, having been diagnosed with the disease as a child – but the couple still worked throughout the Covid lockdown, ‘vulnerable groups’ be damned. “He said to me, ‘I’m going, and I don’t care. We’ll be on the front lines’,” recalls Demetra, and shrugs eloquently: “We’re past being afraid, after so many years there. The things we’ve been through…” She shakes her head: “We’ve been through a lot. No-one else knows how much, only we know.”
She’s 57, a dignified woman with narrow green eyes and a rather severe coiffure. She presents me with a coffee and homemade cherry glyko – but first we have to wait a few minutes (I pass the time perusing Michalis’ impressive collection of caged songbirds in the backyard), because tomorrow is the memorial service for her husband’s grandma and Demetra has to make the kollyva, the commemorative dish of boiled wheat, almonds, raisins and pomegranate seeds. (Most city people buy their kollyva; but it’s different in the village.) Then she joins me on the front porch, with the occasional tractor trundling by, and commences on the story of her life, the various ‘things she’s been through’ from childhood onwards. “Ever since I was four years old, I’ve wanted to be a nurse”.
That was in Geroskipou, just outside Paphos – but not the place you see today, a long-gone Paphos that sounds positively feudal (even though it was only in the late 60s and early 70s). Demetra is the tenth of 11 kids; her dad was an agrofylakas, a watchman for other people’s fields, her mum worked in those fields to make ends meet. (I’d assumed that she lost her mother years ago, but in fact she only passed away in January, a few days after the birth of her great-grandson; she was 92 when she died, meaning – since Demetra is 57 – that she’d already had 10 children by her mid-30s.) Dad’s meagre salary wasn’t enough to support 11 kids, so he rented a few fields and planted them. “Our parents would wake us up at 5am,” she recalls, “and we’d go to the fields and we’d start – we each took a row, since there were so many of us – and by the time it was daybreak we’d have gathered a field of onions, or lentils”; then they went home, took a bath and went to school, though only the last five kids were educated past primary school (partly because their older siblings were bringing in extra money by that time). At nine, Demetra was already working for a man making marble statues, clearing the edges of the moulds; by 11 she’d graduated to a halloumi maker, folding the cheeses and “filling” the yoghurts (I’m too embarrassed to ask how you fill a yoghurt). Above all, from a very early age, she’d accompany her mother on daily charity runs, looking after the old and infirm.
The state was largely absent in those days; families were expected to look after their own – but of course there were cases where the children had gone, leaving the elderly to fend for themselves. “My mum wanted to look after people who didn’t have anyone,” Demetra tells me. “She’d make food, then go every morning before going to work and feed all the old ladies – there were five or six old ladies. She’d make a big pot of soup every morning… Two or three of the grannies were invalids and couldn’t get out of bed, so we’d fix their sores too. I’d take a bottle of zivania and pour it on the sores – because there were no medicines – then my mum would cut up bedsheets and dress them.” The mother was clearly a massive influence on Demetra – and she too must’ve seen a lot of herself in her tenth child (Demetra shows me a photo; they look very similar), which explains why she chose her as a sidekick. After all, the work wasn’t for everyone. “I was brave,” she recalls – “because quite often we’d see worms coming out of the people’s skin. But I could take it, even though I was a kid. My mum would take [the worms], wrap them in newspaper and throw them away, then wipe the sores. It’s because they had no-one to look after them,” she explains, looking remarkably composed at this awful memory.
No surprise, given this early baptism, that Demetra viewed nursing as her life’s work: “It’s a great thing,” she muses, “to help your fellow human – and not for profit, that’s the main thing!”. No surprise that she seems to have carried this philosophy into 37 years (and counting) of being a nurse. “A young colleague says to me one day: ‘Don’t you get tired coming to work? I see you every day – how much can you do? How many people are you going to help? Let it go!’. I told him: ‘But I like doing this work. No-one’s forcing me to do it’.” It’s not just during office hours; she and Michalis are well-known in the village, often the first port of call when someone’s injured or poorly. Even at the hospital, she says, she’ll often volunteer her services when she sees people looking lost or unhappy.
She’s seen a lot, much of it depressing, not just illness but the poverty and malaise surrounding illness. A young woman without money for shoes, let alone the six-euro fee to get her dressing changed. A senile old man left abandoned for hours, Demetra trying to get his daughter’s number to find out what was going on. The people in her stories are often old and helpless – though some of the stories are touching, like the lovely old couple from Palaichori who walked from the bus station (this was at the old hospital) holding hands, holding each other up. They came down every week for six weeks – and Demetra befriended them, going well beyond the call of duty, driving them in from the station and even making sandwiches. They wanted to do something in return, but “they were very poor people,” she says; right at the end, when they arrived for the last time to remove the cast from the old lady’s broken arm, she brought Demetra a gift. “She had a headscarf that her son had sent from Australia – and she wrapped it in a newspaper and brought it to me, looking so happy. Even now, just remembering that gives me goosebumps.”
Not everyone brings gifts – but of course everyone’s grateful, that’s the unspoken ‘profit’ in being a nurse. Doing good is its own reward, yet it’s also a truism that the person helping gets more out of it than the person being helped: a sense of satisfaction, maybe even a sense of power. “Demetra and Michalis, they’re just doing it to show off,” she quotes with a touch of bitterness, speaking of some people’s reaction to her do-gooding. “Let me go, Mother, I’ll break every bone in her body!” she recalls a young man roaring in the hospital waiting room – his mother trying to hold him back – after Demetra gave priority to a frail old man in a wheelchair. The latter is probably inevitable, triage (i.e. making judgment calls about which case is more urgent) being part of a hospital nurse’s job – but Demetra also has a righteous certitude that must rub some people the wrong way. One could say she has the personality of an activist: if she were 20 years old and living in New York, she might be on the streets yelling that black lives matter – but instead she’s 57 and living in Peristerona, so instead she channels her idealism into helping the sick and needy.
Why does she do it? Is it a case of Christian charity? Religion is part of it – she believes in miracles, and there’s religion in the family; her younger brother is the abbot of a monastery in Greece – but it doesn’t seem to be the root cause; her parents weren’t especially religious, though they took the kids to church every Sunday. A better answer is perhaps that she believes in old-fashioned values like duty and discipline, and sacrificing your own comfort to make others comfortable is the ultimate act of self-discipline. She was “quite strict” with Maria when her daughter was growing up, she admits, especially since Maria was an athlete (a champion runner) and couldn’t indulge in the usual teenage vices. “If I was taking her to a party, she had to be home by 10 o’clock.” Didn’t the other girls tease her? “They did, and she’d cry. But I used to tell her, ‘Better to cry now than later’.” Maria survived the strictness, and indeed later thanked her mother “for making me a good person”.
So here we are, in this refugee house in Peristerona, a couple of veteran nurses who’ve probably dressed more wounds, made more beds, applied more bandages and just comforted more stressed-out, hysterical people than any other married couple in Cyprus. Was it worth it? Probably not financially, though the haircut is mostly to blame for that (they put their life savings in Laiki, and lost almost all of it); “Not as bad as 2013!” quips Michalis when I note that 2020 has been quite a bad year for them, her mother’s death followed by coronavirus. Still, as they say, money can’t buy happiness – and Demetra Simadiakou has a lot to be happy about, and a lot to be proud of. “People say, ‘Look at Demetra, why does she do all that?’” she relates, once again speaking of the haters and naysayers. “I just tell them, ‘Look, if you can do it too, then do it. I just do it for the sake of my soul’.” Not unlike a young man saving a random kitten on the road to Peristerona, really.