NURSING NO GRUDGE

Rosemary Opala remembers:

During the – can it be? – five decades since I worked on Peel Island, the experience has provided material from medical interest to local, social and natural history. Even folklore! Occasionally I’ve been asked to ‘guest speak’ on nursing at the Lazaret, or field queries at a (now rare) island open-day. Invariably comes that question: “Weren’t you afraid of catching it?” To which the reply still remains: “Never gave it a thought.” And this answer would apply to all categories of Peel Island staff – despite that mythical ‘Danger Money’ allegedly needed for patient contact.

Some of us had heard a bit about poor Father Damien long before that truly moving film was contemplated of course. And I recall Matron Ahlberg handing me a little book called Damien the Leper: something about the hazards of sharing the patients’ pipes and blankets, and rather unlikely to involve us. Otherwise, there were no precautionary measures for a condition where even today the means of transmission remain unclear. Hansen’s Disease is said to be the least contagious of any infectious disease.  The crumpled cotton gowns we wore on duty were standard public hospital issue against pathogens, but on Peel mainly served to keep our nicely laundered uniforms clean.

Peel Island Lazaret – c.1955 – store, nurses’, matron’s quarters (photo Dr Morgan Gabriel)

These over-gowns were in short supply in the larger hospitals even after WWII and, handed on from one nursing shift to the next, were no doubt a focus of cross-infection. Round the time I met my first Peel Islanders in their pavilion-type ward at Wattlebrae (then Brisbane’s infectious diseases collection point), I was recovering from patient-transmitted Whooping Cough. “Reporting sick” was never appreciated, and as I couldn’t produce a Whoop in the Staff Clinic, I returned to my Pertussis patients with a bottle of cough linctus, Phenobarb tablets, and (later on) Pleurisy.

A colleague of mine only found she’d been working with Meningitis when she saw a school of fish swimming along the ward wall. She was put on the ‘seriously ill’ list but made a good recovery.

By contrast, Peel Island was not only a most interesting place of work, but also a real haven! Associated negative attitudes came from friends and family. In the period before the new treatment for H.D. arrived, my mother’s elderly GP reproached me for “throwing away your whole life!” Several of her neighbours stopped calling in.

In my mother’s position, though, I’m sure the issue wasn’t the concern over an irresponsible daughter’s Lost Future, but discomfort at our low-profile family being a Conversation Piece. And without even a broken romance to explain my behaviour!

At Peel Island – Nurse Rosemary Fielding (Opala), Superintendent Frank Mahoney, Matron Marie Ahlberg, Dr Eric Reye, Enrolled Nurse Sharp (?) late 1940s

Further on, as other young and enthusiastic nurses came and went through Peel, that irritation word dedication was heard less often. It has to be remembered that other personnel apart from medical willingly shared the patients’ lives. The permanent staff – all male – included managerial, kitchen, laundry and outside maintenance workers. And let’s not forget the good-hearted attendants (male orderlies) who cared for permanently incapacitated patients either in their little huts or the hospital, after-hours.

When invited, we all shared the patients’ social activities such as tennis, concerts, and dances. Ingrained Hospital Protocol, not fear of contagion, was a factor in nurses not further “fraternising with the patients”. I’ve told elsewhere of how we had to hike across to the Horseshoe to swim, instead of using the patients’ jetty at high tide, because it “wasn’t professional” to be seen in our decorous bathers.

A final word on the matter. Peel Island was a very healthy place for staff. Most bugs were picked up “off-island”, like the Measles that followed my visit to the Ekka.

Rosemary Opala

January 2003

Nurse Rosemary Fielding (later Opala), Peel Island late 1940s

(Extract from the ebook ‘Peel Island History – A Personal Quest’ Peter Ludlow, April 2015)

This ebook is still available as a PDF file from the author, Peter Ludlow. Click here for details.

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