Valerie Murphy, a Mastectomy Fit Specialist based in the mid-west of Ireland, is back with us today to share a little about how her service started – all the way in Texas, USA, back in 2012.
It is another very hot day in this Southern State. I am sitting here with my new Texan friends and they are aghast as I relay them with our recent family camping experiences. ‘Have you not heard about the rattlesnakes, Miss Valerie?’ ‘Don’t you know we have wild hogs here in the Hill Country?’
I wonder when they will start calling me just ‘Valerie’. I feel like I am on the set of Dallas and I can’t figure out if I am too old or too young to be a ‘Miss’. This is my third get-together with these ladies and I am still adjusting to how polite everyone is. There is none of the usual slagging and messing that goes on at home when a group of women get together. I was looking for different whilst here and I have certainly got it. It is fun and it won’t do me any harm to have to watch my p’s and q’s a bit.
Frankie, my one year old, is playing on the floor with his toys. I am drinking tea and eating Texan Pecan Pie, made especially for us today by our lovely host Miss Merrill. We are the Ouch Cushions Ladies and we are stuffing cushion covers for our charity The Breast Cancer Resource Centre of Texas. The Ouch Cushions are given to women as gifts while in hospital and recovering from breast surgery. I am one of their most recent volunteers.
It is 2012 and we have just recently arrived in Texas where we will be living for a year. Barry is working with the University of Texas in Austin and we are here with our three children, Paddy (4), Isolde (3) and Frankie (1).
Back to the Ouch Cushions. What is this about? How did I get to sit here with these fabulous Texan ladies, stuffing cushions, of all things? Well, as lovely it is to meet people at the kiddies park and toddler groups, I have the time to do a bit more. I am on the lookout for new ideas too and I want to take advantage of being somewhere new. My eyes, ears and mind are open to everything. I am excited to be in this new vibrant city.
It is the end of August and I notice that every time I turn on the radio I hear the words ‘breast cancer’. The Austinites are gearing up for October and breast cancer awareness. Wow – how powerful this particular month is, all over the world. Literally, every time I turn on the radio I hear about different events and fundraisers. One particular event called ‘Fight like a Girl’ is announced regularly. Like most people, cancer is a subject close to my heart. I would love to go this event. If I go though, I will be on my own twiddling my thumbs and trying not to look like I am alone.
Not good at twiddling my thumbs, I call up the woman who is organising it and I offer to help as a volunteer. Once she hears my accent she is very keen to talk about Ireland and the UK, her travels there a long time ago and how much she loved it. She tells me all about meeting Billy Idol when she was in England and how she refused his advances. I am stunned. I want to meet this woman who turned down one of our 80’s icons. I tell her I will see her on the night.
Now that I have committed, I need to find my way there. I am still adjusting to driving on the ‘wrong’ side of the road and getting dizzy, literally, when I am on a road that is actually on top of many other roads. The ‘Fight like a Girl’ event is at the other side of town and I set off with Cynthia, my trusted Sat Nav. Cynthia decides to go ‘off duty’ half way there and I am completely lost. It was not meant to be. I am about to give up and think if I take one more wrong turn I am going home and then I round a corner and there is a huge billboard sign of a woman wearing boxing gloves, with her fist in the air. I have arrived.
This is strange but I knew when I walked in that I had just had a life changing experience. I felt a bolt to my chest. I can’t leave that feeling out of this story because it is true. I meet the wonderful Cherie who actually looks like someone Billy Idol would have gone out with it. It goes from there. I meet amazing people and I know this is the start of my new journey. I head home excited and soon afterward I become a Breast Cancer Resource Centre Volunteer.
As a volunteer I have two main roles. I am on Ouch Cushion duty at Miss Merrill‘s house. I am also involved in a number of night time events and the big one, ARTBRA Austin, coming up the following April, is the most exciting of all.
I am thrilled to be a part of this fundraising event where breast cancer survivors proudly walk the catwalk in fabulous fashion. I will be one of the volunteers on the night and we are here discussing the run-up to the event as we stuff our Ouch Cushions. Frankie is so good, playing away quietly with his toys.
Some of the ladies here are models for the event. Kathy, who is sitting to my right, is chatting about her morning and about the mastectomy fitter who came to her house to fit her for a new breast form and bras. She talks about getting an extra special bra for when she is modelling on the ARTBRA Austin catwalk. I ask Kathy some questions as I had never heard of a mastectomy fitter. Kathy explains that after her mastectomy she had decided not to have reconstruction and so she now wears a breast form along with a mastectomy bra. There and then I had what I can only call a ‘light bulb’ moment. This was for me.
I throw Frankie into the car, well nearly! I get home and I google ‘mastectomy fitting services in Ireland’. No one is doing this at home in the way that Kathy described it to me. I research, I research and I research more. My children would have starved only for my husband fed them. For days there was none of the usual Mammy duties or household work done. I was like someone possessed. Everything fell into place.
Within weeks I was in Waco, Texas and I started my first course of training. I didn’t just love it. I really, really LOVED it. The company I trained with have the slogan ‘making women feel and look beautiful after breast cancer’. I was training to help make women feel and look beautiful and I couldn’t be happier. I was meeting women who had recent surgery and also meeting women who had surgery years earlier. I returned to Waco for my intermediate training course and again for my advanced level. I knew when I got back to Ireland that I could make this service very special for Irish women.
I leave the State of Texas, so grateful for giving me this wonderful opportunity. I sadly say goodbye to my wonderful Ouch Cushion Ladies, everyone I met at the volunteer centre and also the amazing people that trained me. I arrive back in Ireland with not just an idea but my completed training certificates, stock, a website, Facebook page, business cards and most importantly, enough energy to make it happen.
Within a week of being home, the spare room that held high chairs, buggies and all the other kid-related items is emptied and turned into a shop. I get going quickly and I meet with all the different organisations that help me on my way to creating a service. Age and a lifetime of experience, in the business world, taught me to enjoy the journey and boy was I doing this. By late August, I am fully ready and I am now waiting for that all important first client call.
It is September and I am drinking tea with my Mother when this happens – my first call! A lady in her 80’s, in Co. Limerick wants me to come and see her for a fitting. I am ecstatic – my first client. Mam and I have an extra cup of tea to celebrate. Crazy but true, the phone rings minutes later. A lady from Charleville wants to come to my shop. Oh my God – it is all happening! Mam asks me, in typical Mother fashion, what am I going to give this woman to eat? Sure isn’t she travelling all the way from Charleville? I love it – my Mother understood. This was not just a business where I am fitting a lady with a breast form and bra. This was about creating a new and different type of service for women who would enjoy a more personal experience. There would be no rushing, no one waiting their turn in the next room. It is about helping women to be beautiful in a relaxing and enjoyable way.
Mam insisted on giving me her best tea set for my shop. She reminded me that it is the small things that count and I should treat the women that come to my shop as friends. Sure don’t all women like a bit of fashion was another comment made, while enjoying the tea. She really did get it!
We carefully wrapped up each individual piece of the tea set together and I drove home. I was delighted with this lovely gift from my Mother on the momentous occasion of my first client call.
That was our last conversation ever. The following day she had a stroke and a week later died. I can’t say any more than I was absolutely devastated. Our last chat had been so meaningful. I loved her wise words and I am so glad my Mother played such an important part in creating my service. The tea set holds pride of my place in my shop and is a constant reminder of how much she not only cared about me but the women I would work with.
Seven years later and her sound advice has helped my service go from strength to strength. Having Valerie’s Breast Care is like having a fourth child. Like a child, it needs to be mothered and cherished. By steering it with love and care it has evolved in such a way that it’s not just a new career but a whole new lifestyle for me. During this time I have ran, climbed a mountain and attended numerous events and fundraisers to create breast cancer awareness. I have met amazing people in the community, in groups and organisations who have helped me along the way.
I am thankful every day for having created this breast care service and having it in my life.
Valerie’s multi award winning service in the area of mastectomy fitting has provided for hundreds of women in the mid-west of Ireland. Valerie’s kind, caring approach and genuine desire to help women shines through when she talks about her business.
If you are based in the mid-west and would like to make an appointment with Valerie at her customised fitting room in Limerick or avail of a free home visit anywhere in Limerick or the surrounding counties, you can call her on 085 160 1783 or find her on Facebook here. Alternatively ask about a fitting at your local cancer support centre.