Mel Foley obituary

Other lives: Pioneering paediatric epilepsy nurse, and child protection worker

My wife, Mel Foley, who has died aged 65 of cancer, was a pioneering paediatric epilepsy nurse, a child protection worker and an advocate for children with learning disabilities. Throughout her life she refused to accept that the way things are is the way they have to be. Brave and outspoken at times, she was driven by kindness and fairness.

Born in Stockton-on-Tees, Mel was the daughter of Jean (nee Ratcliffe), an optician’s assistant, and Norman Heathwaite, a lorry driver. After her parents divorced, and Jean remarried, Mel went to six different primary schools, the last being Frederick Nattrass school in Stockton.

On leaving William Newton school for girls at the age of 15 with no qualifications, she began working as an accounts clerk at ICI in Billingham. However she craved more of a challenge, and in 1977 qualified from North Tees hospital as a nurse specialising in learning disability. Through her work she met a two-year-old boy with Lowe syndrome. She became personally involved, fostering and eventually adopting him. When little William swam over to me in the sea in Lesbos in 1990, it was not long before Mel and I became life partners, settling in Stockton. We had our civil partnership in 2009, converted to a marriage in 2015.

In her work Mel empowered parents with the skills and confidence needed to be able to move young children with complex medical needs from hospital settings back to their home. Aware that so many of these children had epilepsy, she persuaded the South Tees hospitals trust to create a role for an epilepsy nurse specialist, and undertook intensive retraining. By the mid-1990s, with Mel as a driving force, there was a network of nurses across the country, and even in Malawi.

Mel and a colleague also started a parents group and a teenagers’ club, for which she spent evenings and weekends fundraising. These efforts were recognised by an innovation award from Epilepsy Action and a community award from the Teesside Evening Gazette.

After 30 years in the NHS on Teesside, in 2003 Mel joined Barnardo’s SECOS (sexually exploited children outreach services) project in Middlesbrough as an education development worker. She collaborated with students and schools to develop the teaching aid Protecting Self and Keeping Safe (2006), delivered assemblies in conjunction with the police agency CEOP (Child Exploitation and Online Protection) and made short films with young people, one of which, made with Ormesby school in Middlesbrough, was shown at the 2005 G8 summit at Gleneagles.

As an out gay woman in the 80s, Mel was an early member of Cleveland Lesbian Line, not just answering telephones but fundraising and lobbying against Section 28. As a survivor of sexual abuse herself, she spoke publicly about her experiences and campaigned with Cleveland Against Child Sexual Abuse (Cause) during the Cleveland crisis in 1987.

We moved to Saltburn by the Sea in North Yorkshire in 2010, where, after Mel “retired” in 2013, she became a foot health practitioner for the elderly.

Mel is survived by me, William, and her siblings Chris, Jack and Jill. Another brother, Stephen, predeceased her.

Gill Hall

The GuardianTramp

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