Melanie Simmons

International Year of the Nurse & Midwife 2020

Melanie Simmons 24/5/2020

Tell us a little about your training.

I began my hospital based training 24/4/1967 at the Royal North Shore Hospital in Sydney. (RNSH). Our first eight weeks were in PTS (Preliminary Training School). Food and lodgings were provided and it was mandatory to live in the Nurses’ Quarters but we were not on the payroll during that time. We then had a mini-graduation and so began our three-and- half year clinical training.  My first fortnight’s pay was $24.70. We wore a long-sleeved (sleeves rolled up to ‘bare below the elbow’ when working in the wards) blue cotton uniform with a white Peter Pan collar with a set of removable buttons that we took out and put in each days new uniform – with twelve buttons this was a time consuming task but thankfully after our mini-graduation we were given our white aprons to wear over the blue dress. (This gave us the forbidden opportunity to place three large safety pins down the front of the blue dress under our apron but a spot check from a supervisor to show our buttons could see us ‘de-aproned’ and shamed for six weeks!)

Our roles throughout our training were task oriented, beginning as the ‘food-room nurse’. We served the meals from a large bunbury wheeled in from the hospital’s kitchen. Once a week poached eggs were served for breakfast and it was our task in the 40 bed public wards to poach 40 eggs in milk in a large pan – fishing for the last few eggs in milk was always a bit of a challenge! (Why cook them in milk? I have no idea.) We progressed up the ranks to ‘pan-room nurse’, ‘fluids nurse’ (recording the fluid-balance charts), ‘dressings nurse’, ‘medications nurse’ and finally just before graduation to the honored role of ‘IV nurse’.

We came off the wards for two weeks each year for lectures followed by exams. When moving up another year in our training we embroidered another diamond (we called them ‘pips’) on to our nursing caps. This enabled anyone at a glance to see our rank. We did eight weeks night-duty each year – all as one block with the same two set days off each week. During this period we moved into the night duty nursing quarters to ensure quiet and a good sleep. All the nurses’ quarters were plentifully supplied with tea, coffee and sugar, bread, milk, butter, honey, jams and vegemite, cereals and cheese for our convenience.

Our training was very hierarchical and strict.  We had a 12MN curfew and only on very special occasions could we apply for a 1AM pass. There was no ‘de-briefing’ after any major or traumatic incident but we were there for each other. We provided a shoulder to cry on for each other and formed life-long friendships maintained for the next fifty years with periodic reunions. Those friendships have remained very strong – we have been to each other’s weddings (often as bridesmaid) and are godmothers to each other’s children. We consider we had a good training and remain proud to be RNSH graduates.


What things are different now in training you would like to see brought back?

Training today is very much more theoretical. More clinical work during training.  Is nursing today a science or an art? I believe it is both but has swung more heavily towards ‘the science of nursing’ at the expense of ‘the art of nursing’.


What things in training are you glad you no longer have to endure?

Split shifts. It was common during our training to work split shifts – fortunately before our days off we worked a straight early shift and after days off a straight late shift.


Tell us where you worked after you finished training. 

Like many of my cohort, I travelled overseas to Europe for eighteen months. This gave me the flexible opportunity to work with a nursing agency where I took on nursing in private homes and working at the Harley Street Clinic in London. On return to Australia I did my Midwifery training at RNSH and subsequently worked in rural NSW at Wellington, Tamworth and Wagga hospitals before moving to Perth’s Princess Margaret Hospital to do a Pediatric course and working in their Neonatal Intensive Care ward. In the 1980’s I worked on Thursday Island for twelve months, then at the Toowoomba Base Hospital in the Maternity Ward for twelve months and in ICU for nine years.

My role as the Special Services Sister (SSS) on Thursday Island included scheduling the doctors’ island air clinics and booking the plane flights, the visiting Cairns and Townsville doctors’ clinics, liaising with the outer island nurses, island retrievals and STD (sexually transmitted disease) tracing. It was an interesting year and a wonderful experience.

From 1994 – 2020 I worked at Theodore Hospital as a general nurse and midwife, resigning and retiring (after 53 years) from nursing in May. Roles at Theodore have included Emergency, X-Ray operator, Pharmacy, Theatre work, Healthy Hearing and Chemotherapy.


What is the most rewarding thing about your role?    

Most people are grateful for the help of nurses and express thanks for the job we do. It is those who show their appreciation in many truly heartfelt and touching ways. It has been rewarding to see newborn babies grow through infancy, childhood and into their teens – especially if you have cared for their mother in labor and through the birthing process. Many mothers will bring their growing child back to the hospital just to show you their growth, their progress and their smiles– and that is rewarding. It has also been rewarding to help younger staff grow into their role and to see them implement good nursing practices.


One of your fondest memories.  

On Thursday Island I was fortunate to get to many of the outer islands. Nursing generally doesn’t have many perks attached to it but one evening I received a call to be at the helipad before sunrise next morning to fly to one of the islands to retrieve a patient with an acute abdomen. As the sun rose over the Torres Strait on a clear morning my first ever helicopter flight lifted me into the air and flew over the atolls and lagoons towards Badu Island. The sheer beauty of this glorious flight is seared in my memory. I took a deep breath and thought – how good is this, and I’m being paid to do it!


Tell us about any funny stories.  

Some things we did legally and in good faith are now considered to be politically incorrect – we gave placebo injections of sterile water to those we felt were demanding unnecessary analgesia (sometimes it worked), and a child’s appearance  was often described as FLK (funny looking kid.)


What is the most dreaded activity you have had to undertake?  

The proliferation and ever-changing computer programs have quite bewildered me. At every turn a new password is required or needing to be updated. There have been days when I have sat at a computer for more time than spent delivering care. After fifty-three years I know it is time to leave digital nursing to the next generation.


What is the best invention in your career?    

Plastic (flexible) intravenous cannulas to replace the rigid steel cannulas that tissued at the drop of a hat, the foetal doppler for  listening to foetal heart sounds to replace the trumpet-like pinnard, and ECG machines that print the cardiac tracing on one page to replace the very  long ECG strip which we subsequently cut and mounted (time consuming) have all been great inventions. Disposable items have replaced re-usable items but have come at a dreadful environmental cost. However, the greatest of all would have to be intravenous infusion pump that regulates the flow of fluids eliminating many errors and the long minutes we stood counting drops and doing our mathematical calculations (15 drops = 1ml. Drops per minute = mls/ hour divided by 4. Some things are hard to unlearn!).


What do you wish they would invent to make tasks easier?

A magic wand to wave to treat and manage constipation.


Any other information you would like to add.  

I feel I have had a privileged nursing career, one which I have enjoyed and been proud to be a part of. I have not been subjected to bullying or harassment and have been given the respect by fellow health professionals that everyone deserves. I have been honored to work with excellent medical, nursing and allied health staff and learnt from them.

There are many who feel nurses are hardly done by without acknowledging the many positive sides. I feel we are well paid, we receive excellent penalty rates and working conditions are comfortable (although those working in full PPE in recent weeks will be thinking otherwise.) Our profession makes it easy to work anywhere across the country, we meet and work with many wonderful people. If we want time off for special functions we can request and are usually granted that time. Shift work makes it easy to attend all types of appointments and the public puts a high degree of trust in us.

Now that I am recently retired, I look back with satisfaction over so many varied life-enriching experiences beginning with the opening of the eyes of a newborn and closing the eyes of a dying man.

Thankyou for the opportunity of telling my story.

Melanie Simmons.