The nurse who could spot a pregnant woman at 100 yards

Helen Russell, left, in her nursing days.
Helen Russell, left, in her nursing days.
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The Borders nursing community has lost one of its leading lights following the death of Helen Russell. She was 81.

Combining the roles of district nurse and midwife, Helen was a much loved and highly respected figure in Selkirk and the Ettrick & Yarrow Valleys from the late 1960s until her retiral in 1990.

Helen Russell.

Helen Russell.

Having been brought up in the village of Lindean, it often seemed there wasn’t a single family in the Selkirk community she didn’t know … and the arrival of her trusty blue Mini car at patients’ homes signalled that the cavalry had finally arrived.

The care Helen Russell provided was not confined to medical matters, however. She would think nothing of taking home patients’ pot plants to look after if they were going on holiday, and once arrived back at Lindean with a pair of dachshunds for the same reason.

Born in Troon, Ayrshire, on November 16, 1937, Helen was the daughter of John and Helen Baxter. At that time her father was employed as an English teacher at Marr College, later transferring to the village school of Scotlandwell in Perth.

The family moved to the Borders when Mr Baxter took up the post of schoolmaster at Bowden School, eventually rising to become director of education for Roxburghshire County Council.

The family set up home at Lindean, with Helen’s brother Sandy later taking over the running of Lindean Farm. Both siblings attended Lindean School, before moving to Selkirk High School.

Helen undertook her basic nursing training at Edinburgh’s Dean College, then studied for her midwifery qualification at Bellshill Maternity Hospital, Glasgow. From there she headed to Jersey to serve as a midwife on the island, before returning to the Borders in the early 1960s.

In November, 1965, she married Harry Russell, who earlier that year had been appointed Selkirk’s Royal Burgh Standard Bearer. The couple made their home in Lindean, with daughters Judith and Claire arriving in 1966 and 1969.

Helen continued her nursing career at Galashiels Cottage Hospital and Peel Hospital, before taking on the joint role of district nurse & midwife for Selkirk and the Valleys, firstly based in the Nurse’s Cottage at Ettrickbridge, and then at Selkirk Health Centre.

On call night and day, Helen Russell’s passion for the job – and her patients – knew no bounds. On one occasion an expectant mother’s husband roared down on his motorbike from the top of Ettrick to inform Helen his wife had gone into labour.

She quickly grabbed her medical bag and told him she’d follow him in her car. ‘No time for that,’ came the reply, and next thing Helen knew she was on the back of his motorbike, clinging on for dear life as the pair of them raced back up the valley.

It was said Helen Russell could spot a pregnant woman at 100 yards, and even in retirement she remained fiercely proud of her nursing background, maintaining close links with all her former medical colleagues.

An expert dress-maker, she would create beautiful ballgowns and outfits for friends and family. She also enjoyed sewing, knitting, embroidery and crocheting, last year completing a dozen poppies for the ‘Selkirk Remembers’ armistice cascade at Selkirk Parish Church.

Dr John Wilson, who worked as a GP at Selkirk Health Centre, remembers Helen Russell with particular affection.

“The whole team at Selkirk were absolutely fantastic,” he said, “and the support and help Helen gave me in my early days in the town was wonderful.

“She and her fellow district nurses had a lot of responsibility, and it was a great eye-opener for me to see just how professionally and selflessly they carried out all their varied duties. Helen understood exactly what was expected of her, always going out of her way to give patients the best possible care.”

Margaret Young, a fellow district nurse and midwife at Selkirk Health Centre, describes Helen as ‘a force of nature’ who was completely committed to the job.

“As well as working as a school nurse she also ran parent classes in the evening, and started up a slimming club at the health centre. Nothing was ever too much trouble for Helen – she was kindness itself.

“I remember when the district nurses’ office was moved from the Cottage Hospital to the back of the health centre, we all commented on how ghastly the curtains were.

On Monday morning Helen came in with a set of beautiful curtains she‘d made at the weekend, and I think they were still there when she retired.

“She was such a talented person, and I’m sure there are many people living in the local community today who will be very glad Helen Russell was there to look after them during her time as district nurse.”

Helen took special delight in following the progress of her two teenage grandchildren, Angus and Allie, both of whom had stayed with their grandparents at Lindean the week before Helen was admitted to hospital.

Helen Russell’s funeral service will be held at the Borders Crematorium on Thursday, September 12, at 2pm, to which all friends are respectively invited. J.D.R.S.