A Princess, a Nurse and a Red Balloon

Mary Anne Willow meeting Princess Diana on Tuesday 7 June 1988

This year would have been Princess Diana’s sixtieth birthday. I met her briefly, and this is a story of the unforgettable memories of that day preserved by the power of the liminal space between beauty and pain. While time can erase events from our memory, this is a permanent cherished account, which is as fresh as the day it was created.

This post shares a glimpse of the mystery of Diana and illuminates the beauty that dwelt in her brightness.

It was Tuesday 7 June 1988. The alarm went off at 5.00, an hour earlier than my usual time for an early shift. I had a lot to prepare and organise before she arrived. The dawn chorus of thrushes, blackbirds, robins and sparrows was greeting the arrival of a new day, their thrilling songs praising birth, life, and light. My world was waking up to the colour and sound of beauty.

St Peter’s Parish Church, Papworth Everard, Cambridgeshire

My scuffed old limescale kettle, which I kept in the corner of my room, boiled as I made tea. I was living in the nurses’ residence—we called it the nurses’ home—close to the hospital in the village of Papworth Everard. My first-storey room was so spacious it could accommodate a double bed, which had been left by the previous occupants, a married couple. It had a small lounge area with a couple of armchairs in a worn and stained green fabric placed around a Habitat pine coffee table. There was a large bay window with draughty sash windows overlooking mature gardens. This generous, quiet space was airy, with only the sound of a gentle bird song. It was a place of solace from the sadness and the bleak despair of life-threatening illness I encountered when nursing patients who were often young and very sick. Despite ten years of diverse experience across a spectrum of specialities, each caring role brought its pain and suffering.

The hospital was just a short downhill walk away, so there was never any risk of not arriving for duty because of wintry weather There was a small family-run village shop at the bottom of the hill where I would call in to buy bread for breakfast, a croissant or scone maybe. Just something easy and quick to eat on my way to greet whatever my shift would bring. This could be the last thing I ate before the eight-hour shift ended, and it was not unusual for it to extend to nine, ten, eleven hours, leaving me emotionally and physically exhausted.

Each shift was unpredictable, bringing unplanned demands, often caused by staff sickness. Not only were there the needs of the acute and chronic sick, dying and bereaved to cope with, we also had to provide specialist care with insufficient staff. The clinical needs of patients were highly specialised, including the physical, emotional and psychological assessment, preparation and rehabilitation of heart and lung transplant patients, many of whom were from distant regions of the UK. We also had to support their family and friends, who were often terrified by darkened thoughts of losing their loved ones before their lives were complete.

I would often not have the time nor inclination to take a meal break. However, there was always a supply of chocolates gifted by grateful patients and relatives. Delicious confectionery snacks—chocolate fudge being my favourite—would appease my appetite until I could switch off from the emotional and psychological demands of leading a team of staff on a 35-bed specialist chest medical ward.

I showered as my steaming tea brewed in a tiny floral china pot. I was wondering how this day would unfold. The hospital administration had been making meticulous preparations for this unique royal visit for weeks. The grounds surrounding the hospital resembled those of one of England’s finest stately homes, but there was no magnificent palace or manor house to be found. Instead, this onetime sanitorium to treat tuberculosis provided world-class services for organ transplantation and the treatment of pulmonary hypertension, cystic fibrosis, and sleep disorders.

The previous day, there had been a discreet team of counterterrorism agents with sniffer dogs checking every nook and cranny, including the sewers. The hospital not only cared for the vulnerable, but its location was also vulnerable too. It was in a small rural village, but with easy access to London. These preparations, ranging from the minutiae of flowerbed planting and pedantic grass trimming to the detailed security measures to prevent a terrorist attack, were not unusual. Surgeons had carried out world firsts in transplantation—including the first successful heart transplant in the UK in 1979 and the world’s first heart, lung and liver transplant in 1986. This inevitably attracted regular visits from other international world-class clinicians, politicians and royalty. The extraordinary was ordinary for Papworth employees.

I was neither worried nor overly excited. Perhaps I was experiencing a self-satisfaction that came from nursing in the shadow of highly regarded clinicians. Perhaps excessive unselfconscious pride had provoked professional complacency and arrogance towards meeting the great and the grand. Now it seems like an enormous achievement for someone who was once a wild, wayward and untameable teenager living with domestic violence and abuse. Or perhaps I was comfortably numb, a defence I used against anxiety encountered when intimate with human pain and suffering. There was no easy way to be alongside distraught families whose helpless love seemed powerless. I would like to believe I was not caring from a place of fake altruism but genuine compassion for the weak, sick and vulnerable.

It was gentle inner anticipation, a faint, yet palpable, feeling. Like an invisible summer breeze floating through fine meadow grass. It was a feeling of mysterious inevitability that I was meeting her. A deep inner knowing which evoked tranquillity and clarity of mind. Was it preordained that one day I would meet this beautiful iconic princess or just my romantic imagination? This was not an encounter I had ever dreamed of, but it was one of intuitive certainty.


I put on my crisply laundered uniform, a navy blue dress with a white collar, and new black nylon tights—the liberating comfort of cool bare summer legs would not be seen as professional etiquette. The previous evening, I had dutifully polished my flat black lace-up shoes to remove any bodily fluid staining, such as urine. Their soles were rubber, which meant they made less noise on the night shift. I neatly rolled up my sleeves above my elbows, then concealed the folds with white starched-linen elasticated cuffs. I placed a black and red pen with a pair of scissors in my breast pocket. Different inks were used to colour code and chart patients’ daily vital signs. I completed this stage of the uniform outfit by a silver-buckled navy blue Petersham belt, a symbolic decoration whose only purpose was to distinguish between a qualified registered nurse and one in training.

Before I completed adorning my uniform with items that now seem ridiculous, I sipped my strong tea and practised a reverent act of gentle politeness. Today I would curtsy as I respectfully greeted a princess. I felt awkward and slightly peculiar. I am 5′ 8″ tall with disproportionately long legs. It was rather like a young giraffe or foal trying to stabilise itself, although not as cute. How far should I bend my knees with one foot forward? Which foot should be forward and which one backward? How far should I lower myself? Too far, and I could lose my balance, looking more like a wobbling clown than a serious, caring professional.

Conversely, the insufficient movement could be misconstrued as being blasé. Either way, there was the worrying potential for unforgettable public embarrassment. I had no time to dwell on this. Instead, I shunned images of self-disappointment and blundering. Nursing has taught me to ignore unsettling thoughts of failure and error. Unhelpful mental distractions blended with self-doubt would be resisted. Moreover, there was no time for wasteful meanderings.

My thoughts were calm. I had a gritty determination to focus solely on facilitating the introduction of Princess Diana to those patients whose lives defied death. These folk lived at a threshold of life and death. Some were saved by death, the death of the invisible organ donor, whose life had often ended with sudden tragedy.

The final tier to my uniform embellishment was a freshly starched traditional linen cap. This would be carefully pinned above my ponytail once I arrived at the ward to avoid it being displaced by a sudden gust of wind while en route. Tidiness today was paramount, and no loose strands of hair, laddered tights or fingernails in need of a manicure were permissible.

I left my room at 6 o’clock and took a determined walk to the hospital beneath a cloudless early summer sky. I decided I didn’t want any breakfast, as I was keen to begin the final princess preparations. In any case, the village grocery shop would not be open this early.

Once I arrived at the hospital, I worked with the well-established team to serve breakfasts, administer medicines orally and intravenously, record vital signs, change beds, and help patients to bathe and change into fresh nightwear. The very sick continued to be monitored closely. Everything and everywhere was unusually tidy. Indoors and out. Each expectant patient and member of staff was as neat as the immaculate, colourful flowerbeds, although our indoor colour palette was not so vibrant. This was limited to cool blue walls and curtains, blue and white uniforms, brown industrial carpet along the corridors, and pale blue bed covers. No crease or crumb was in sight—no commodes, bedpans, soiled bedding, nightwear or dust. The entire contents of the ward, from bedside lockers and tables to intravenous stands and the nursing station, had been cleaned and polished to near sterility. Offensive odours were fragranced with a lemon-scented spray.

Despite aching fatigue, which left them shivery and solemn after a ten-hour night shift, those on duty the previous night stayed and help with caring for the sick and the preparations for the royal visit. There was no time to sleep. Many of the night staff opted for permanent night duty because of family commitments. Young children could be cared for while mum and dad worked opposite one another. Today they had made alternative arrangements for childcare so they too, could be part of the unique opportunity to meet this dazzling princess.

I have no memory of tea and coffee breaks. All our attention seemed to be absorbed with futile activities, which, on reflection, made no difference to the quality of patient care. I doubt if Princess Diana would have noticed our superfluous attention to detail, such as which way the pillows were facing or the tidiness of a noticeboard. It was rather like preparing for Christmas Day when we compulsively drive ourselves to exhaustion by becoming absorbed with petty preoccupations. And like Christmas Day, so would today pass swiftly, leaving only a glimpse of its sweet, radiant mystery.

The purpose of this visit was to support the work of the British Lung Foundation, its logo an iconic red balloon, and of which Diana was the patron. With military precision, the helicopter landed two minutes within its expected time of arrival. She arrived with effortless grace and elegance, and it was like a rare exotic bird gently floating down into the hospital grounds.

Our shy, hesitant princess stepped out of the helicopter onto the lawn. Her immaculate, natural beauty captivated me, and I instantly banished any preconceptions that media accounts had exaggerated her beauty.

I thought of the words of the poet Keats: ‘A thing of beauty is a joy forever. Its loveliness increases. It will never pass into nothingness.’

Despite travelling by air, which I suspect had minimal seating space, Diana’s outfit was impeccable, not a crease in sight. She wore a red crimplene suit with a contrasting white collar and large white fabric-covered buttons. On her feet were red and white court shoes, both a fashion and pragmatic choice, given she had to walk across a lawn area—these provide some elevation without sinking into the grass, such would be the case with stilettoes. She completed the ensemble with a striking white clutch bag, which she carried beneath her left arm.

Diana’s blonde collar-length wavy hair appeared to require minimal styling, as though all that was needed was a gentle brush that morning. The only evidence of makeup was a light layer of mascara. Her nails were short, natural, and neat. Unlike myself, she had lightly tanned bare legs. I admired her for this. I assumed bare summer legs would contravene the royal dress code.

Diana smiled and held out her limp hand. Her mysterious presence was alluring. Her beauty connected with my soul at that moment, etching an unforgettable image like an encounter with a rare work of art. It would become a precious lifelong joie de vivre, infusing my soul with light blended with the colours red, white and blue. I call it my inner princess rainbow, which dances and plays joyfully deep within my inner sanctum. Even now, thirty-three years later, my privileged brief encounter is as fresh and vibrant as it was then.

By contrast to this compassionate and sensitive princess, a group of about twelve tall, wide and intense testosterone-driven bodyguards dressed in black suits accompanied her throughout her visit. The men wore barely visible earpieces, which transmitted fuzzy orders from hidden secret agents and they were like human cyborgs or grown-up Midwitch cuckoos. They looked human, but their behaviour was robotic, devoid of feeling and emotion. Diana seemed oblivious as they surrounded her like a Roman turtle formation as she was swept along. The atmosphere around her felt harsh and hostile. Diana obeyed their dictatorial instructions, and these were non-negotiable. She resembled a valuable commodity brought out for brief public display to impress onlookers, boasting ownership and wealth by exhibiting a jewel-encased crown.

Each shy attempt by Diana to speak with a patient (most of whom were in individual rooms) was swiftly interrupted as they pushed her along to the next one. She resembled a delicate red rose,  carried along by hidden currents beneath a ripple less river. I remember her nervous, innocent giggle as she awkwardly tried to converse with patients, staff, and the men in black. Like a lost child, her eyes bewilderingly searched each of us for some sense of reassurance. She seemed vulnerable, powerless, and unable to assert herself.

Tired and hungry, the night staff lined up, straight-backed, smart, and proud, waiting to meet her. They were all ignored, and their hopes discarded. A long row of dedicated and highly skilled staff was invisible and irrelevant as the black moving shield forcefully rushed their precious cargo past them down a grey, windowless corridor towards the ward exit.

Like the tragic Paris car crash on 31 August 1997, when Diana was snatched away before her life was complete, she was here, and now she was gone.

‘… it was her innermost feelings of suffering that made it possible for her to connect with her constituency of the rejected.

And here we come to know another truth about her. For all the status, the glamour, the applause, Diana remained a very insecure person at heart, almost childlike in her desire to do good for others so she could release herself from deep feelings of unworthiness …

I would like to thank God for the small mercies he has shown us at this dreadful time. For taking Diana at her most beautiful and radiant and when she had joy in her private life. Above all, we give thanks for the life of a woman I am so proud to be able to call my sister, the unique, the complex, the extraordinary and irreplaceable Diana whose beauty, both internal and external, will never be extinguished from our minds and hearts.’

Taken from Earl Spencer’s Funeral Oration, 6 September 1997.

 By Mary Anne Willow, author of The Grace of a Nightingale.


Author: arrowgatepublishing

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