GP Interview - Providing medical care for pilgrims

As the Catholic Association's chief medical officer, GP Dr Nuala Mellows accompanies the annual pilgrimage to Lourdes.

Dr Mellows: Our assisted pilgrims have pride of place in Loudres
Dr Mellows: Our assisted pilgrims have pride of place in Loudres

When did you make your first pilgrimage to Lourdes?

I first went to Lourdes with the Handicapped Childrens' Pilgrimage Trust when I was 17 years old.

I returned every year through medical school and junior hospital posts, until I started my family.

Somehow, I knew one day I would return and the opportunity arose when my own children started going to Lourdes with their school, Stonyhurst College, whose group forms part of the Catholic Association (CA) Pilgrimage.

Seven years ago I returned to Lourdes as a doctor with the CA and last year, I was asked to take on the role of chief medical officer because my predecessor needed time with his young family.

What does your CA chief medical officer role entail?

As chief medical officer, I am sent the medical details of all of the pilgrims who would like to join the pilgrimage. I look through them and make sure we can provide good care for the pilgrims while in Lourdes.

This is done in discussion with the chief nurse and may involve speaking to the patient or their family and, if necessary, arranging to visit them.

We sometimes have to try to find financial support for the pilgrims to allow them to join the pilgrimage.

Does your faith influence your role as a GP in Berkshire?

My faith sustains me every day of my life, be it at home, at work or in Lourdes. Without my firm belief in God, I would not be able to cope. God taught us to love one another and to serve others. I try to keep this thought at the forefront of my mind and serve my patients as best I can.

My work with the CA peaks as the date of the annual pilgrimage approaches, but I manage to get it done in the evenings and at weekends.

What is pilgrimage to Lourdes like, who attends and why?

People join the pilgrimage for many reasons. Some have been coming for years and keep returning.

Others hear about it at church or in the press, or friends recommend it.

Having made it to Lourdes, it becomes easy to understand what makes people return. It is a very special place.

Our assisted pilgrims, many with chronic diseases, are often marginalised in society. In Lourdes they are the people given pride of place. No obstacle is insurmountable. They are cared for by helpers, young and not so young, who pray with them and laugh or cry with them.

What might you be called on to do while there?

Providing medical care for our assisted pilgrims is just the same as a GP surgery.

If there are acute medical problems, there is a district general hospital nearby. Fortunately, I have only used it a couple of times.

On one occasion, it was a helper who had an MI. He had his angioplasty and was home at the same time as the rest of the pilgrimage.

The number of doctors on the pilgrimage varies - it is usually between five and 10. There are also nurses, healthcare assistants and physiotherapists.

What are the challenges and what do you gain from it?

The greatest challenge is the logistics of getting about 150 assisted pilgrims to Lourdes, together with the medical team and helpers, totalling about 700 people.

There are other problems, such as organising oxygen for those who require 24-hour oxygen therapy.

But for me, returning to Lourdes recharges my batteries. I can find inner peace to help me understand and accept the challenges in life.

How many pilgrimages have you joined? Do any stand out?

I have been on 22 pilgrimages in all. Each is special in its own way. It is always wonderful to see our pilgrims with such great difficulties in their own lives, who can enjoy the love and care given to them.

I once accompanied a 12-year-old girl with spinal muscular atrophy who became unwell while we were in Lourdes. She dictated a beautiful prayer asking God to look after her family. Her calm acceptance of her condition and certain death was an example to all who had the privilege of being with her that year. She died six months later.

Only this year, the smile on the face of a young man with motor neurone disease made the struggle of getting him to Lourdes so very worthwhile.

Miracles do happen in Lourdes, but since Our Lady appeared to Bernadette in 1858, only 69 cures have been declared miraculous. I think there are many more miracles that just allow our assisted pilgrims to continue to face the challenges they face every day.

Catholic Association

  • The CA, a registered charity, was founded in 1891. Its main purpose is to mastermind the annual pilgrimage to Lourdes.
  • For more details, go to

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