Celebrating 40 Years of Mary McGowan

Honesty, empathy, humanity and loyalty – Mary McGowan has all of those traits and more.

For 40 years she has been a part of the Children’s Cancer Centre at The Royal Children’s Hospital. A remarkable milestone for an outstanding woman, who at the age of 26, left Ireland and found her way to Australia.

Mary has dedicated her life to caring for children with cancer and their families. She doesn’t like the limelight and prefers to work in the background, but her passion and motivation drive her to effect change for children with cancer every single day.

During the four decades Mary has been involved in paediatric oncology, she has shown endless generosity, selflessness and dedication.

“I love the kids. I love the job. I’ve seen so many good things. And it’s the children who keep you there,” Mary said.

Mary started as a paediatric nurse in 1978 and in two years was promoted to the Nurse Unit Manager. She held that role for more than 20 years, during which she influenced many changes at The Royal Children’s Hospital. In 2003, Mary was promoted to the manager’s position at the Children’s Cancer Centre.

The very early days of her career also saw the start of Mary’s fundraising journey. She raised money for bright new curtains for the children’s cancer ward and then organised a working party to repaint the drab parents’ room.  

“That was the beginning of being a little rebel,” she said.

“I just always wanted to change things. I didn’t see myself as a major fundraiser, but I saw myself wanting to make things better for the children and the families.”

Mary has seen much more than the décor of the hospital change over her 40 years.

“I’ve seen a lot of improvement in the cure rates of cancer,” she said.

“When I started it was only 38%, and today it is 88% nearly for all cancers. For some even much higher.”

“Bittersweet is a good word when I talk about childhood cancer and my work.

“You see the kids and their families at their best and their worst. The same applies to the staff. With my history and knowledge, I’m able to share it with so many other families and nurses in other institutes, overseas and in developing countries.”

Over the years, Mary has served on many charity organisations either as a founder, a committee member or a board member.

“It’s great to see people wanting to give back,” she said. “It’s great to be involved.”

She was a founding member of Challenge and the Children’s Cancer Centre Foundation.

She has been heavily involved with LARCH (Leukaemia Auxiliary at The Royal Children’s Hospital), CIKA (Cancer in Kids at The Royal Children’s Hospital), and she supports Cancer Crusaders.

She was also on the board of Ronald McDonald House for more than 20 years. It was there she met Peter Bishop as the newly appointed head of the Ronald McDonald House in Parkville, in September 1986.

“Mary wanted to do better for the families, she was always pushing us to increase capacity, and she provided a good link with the hospitals,” Peter said.

“Her passion drives her. She’s a constant in so many people’s lives and has sacrificed a lot of her personal life for others. She’s very dedicated and extremely loyal. So many people are extremely grateful for her assistance.”

Since 2002, Mary has also been a director of the Children’s Cancer Foundation.

“The Foundation is more at the big end of things. It’s on a different level to smaller focussed charities,” she said.

“Mary’s commitment to improving the lives of others – through her public roles as a director of the Foundation and volunteering for other charities, or at The Royal Children’s Hospital, and in her private life – knows no bounds. She is full of surprises!" said Aileen Boyd-Squires, Chief Executive of the Children's Cancer Foundation.

Mary has been involved with countless fundraising events, including managing the Foundation’s team, the Cytotoxic Cyclists, in the Murray to Moyne Cycle Relay for 17 years.

The very first year, the team consisted of Mary and a group of eight nurses.

“You would of laughed if you’d seen us - it was just amazing and unbelievable! That year I don’t think we even slept, as we were the last team. We got in at 4am and had to be back out on the road at 7am,” she laughed. 

The hundreds of thousands of dollars that have been raised with Mary’s help for children with cancer, have not only helped past and present patients, but are crucial for future childhood cancer patients.

Her significant commitment to children with cancer, compassionate nursing, administration in fundraising, volunteering in camps for sick children and constant family support have left a great impact to everyone involved with the childhood cancer.

“I love it! I’ve got an awful lot out of it. The people I’ve met are just amazing. I don’t think I’d be the person I am today without a lot of them. It is the best part of my job, it really is,” Mary said. 

She never forgets a child or their circumstances. She has kept in contact with many of the families whose children recovered or lost the battle to cancer.

One such family are the Wallaces from Bairnsdale. They met Mary just six weeks after she started work as a nurse on the cancer ward at The Royal Children’s Hospital in 1978.

Joyce and Robert Wallace’s son Mark died just six weeks after his cancer diagnosis, but the family have never forgotten Mary’s kindness to them and have remained firm friends ever since.  

“Mary is part of our family,” Joyce and Robert said.

“There’s only one word to describe her: an angel. She is the best person, with the biggest heart.”