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Golden girls.

Soon to celebrate their 50th year reunion, Group 731 shares insights from a lifetime of nursing.

Oct 25, 2022

Words: Lauren Murphy

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My mum’s a nurse. I bet most people reading this have either said or heard that line before.

Fifty years ago, the three main career paths women were presented with were secretary, teacher or nurse. My mum, Kathy Irvine (nee Muir) was a graduate nurse in Group 731 from West Gippsland Hospital (now West Gippsland Healthcare Group). Next year her group will celebrate their 50th-year reunion.

Together they hold a history of incredible care for the public and life friendship that began the day they arrived to live on campus at the hospital on the hill – most at the tender age of seventeen.

“I think [nursing] has given me a scope of practice that forced me to dig deep into all aspects of my emotional, mental, physical, and spiritual self. Very few other professions challenge all four”

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For Anne and Marg, who wrote their applications together during a high school typing class, the choice was simple. “I wanted to travel and [nursing] looked like the best option. Anne wanted to leave home. Done,” Marg says.

Anne admits she had no idea what nursing involved, “my prep work was reading… the Flying Doctors series.”

For Kathy, it was a challenging family health issue and her exposure to nurses at the Royal Children’s Hospital that led her to pursue the career.

Arriving on campus, Pat was quick to question what lay ahead. “Holy moly, what have I gotten myself into!”

“The uniform was from the modern version of a convent,” explains Marg.

The rules were “very archaic” by today’s standards. They were “steeped in tradition and based on a hierarchical model,” Anne explains. She recalls having to stand to attention when any nurse senior to you, even those six months ahead in the course, entered the room.

Nurses were also not allowed to marry while studying. Pat remembers one supervisor doing spot checks “to keep boyfriends out”, shining torches on their faces and occasionally checking boyfriends weren’t stashed between mattresses. The group tell me on a few occasions they were successfully hidden.

On the occasions they got out on a “late pass”, the Darnum pub was their place for socialising. Marie recalls an elaborate mission to sneak a rather “sozzled” birthday girl past the sister in charge. One can almost hear the laughter that would have erupted back in the cottages.

Although some privacy was gained in the second year when they ‘graduated’ to living in the old cottages, with four in each, Marg recalls still having to “get a late pass to go and play basketball”.

Studying was very hands-on, all recalling when their tutor wanted them to experience what a patient would do when a Nasogastric tube is inserted into the nose and down the stomach. “I remember all of us sitting in class with these tubes inserted!” says Chris.

The student nurses were the workforce of the hospital while also managing their studies. Their nursing day could run from 7-10:30am, followed by study, then a late shift from 4-10pm. By the second year they were in charge of wards and shifts. “It seemed like slave labour to me, working the heaviest workloads of the day!” explained Anne.

This environment did create strong bonds between the group. As Chris explained, “Nurses have intense experiences and only nurses understand what other nurses truly go through. There were many very sad and confronting [times] and many happy times”.

Despite busy lives, location changes and family, the core group have continued with annual catch-ups. Shared stories and humour flow as easily as they did in the beginning.

Between the group, there have been diverse career paths and specialisations including midwifery, surgical, acute hospital settings, immunisation, drug and alcohol, childhood and adolescence, even the establishment of the first bush nursing hospital at Mt Baw Baw in 1977.

“I think [nursing] has given me a scope of practice that forced me to dig deep into all aspects of my emotional, mental, physical, and spiritual self. Very few other professions challenge all four,” shares Marg.

The group agrees that the perception of health and well-being has changed over the years, along with access to health information, dramatic advances in medical treatments and greater acceptance of alternative medicine.

Kathy notes that technology is “exploding, allowing close monitoring and earlier recognition of deterioration, thus saving lives.'' She adds that mental health has also “taken its rightful place in health care.”

We have all heard the cries in recent years of nursing shortages, unions striving for wage increases and intense PPE uniforms leaving their permanent mark.

Some of Group 731 believe the current nursing system is in crisis.

“Open an eye and you are out. That has been exacerbated by Covid or rather brought it to a head,” explains Marg, who currently works in the frontline of immunisation.

As society and the world of medicine change, I ask the group what traits make a good nurse. Their answers include compassion, diligence, advocacy, assertiveness, integrity, courage, tolerance and a willingness to learn. Humour and the ability to break the tension were also mentioned. “Simplifying everything into doable tasks has made me very good at directing traffic, no matter how tense or difficult the situation might be,” shares Heather.

There have been career highs and lows for all. But the majority wouldn’t change a thing about their career choice.

My mum’s career as a nurse has positively influenced my practicality, perseverance, compassion and admittedly my toughness if my children try to pass off feelingtoo sick to go to school.

She reflects, “what you remember most are the patients who you have had the privilege to be with through the seasons of human life. The joys, successes and times of despair.”

That is the incredible role nurses play in our communities.

The 'Golden Girls' featured here include Kathy Irvine, Margaret Scott, Pat Harris, Heather Miles, Marie Smith, Ann White & Chris Smith.

Gippslandia - Issue No. 24

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