Will you be joining us at the 2024 Remote Nursing & Midwifery Conference?
23-25 October 2024, Naarm/Melbourne. We are now accepting abstract submissions. Click here to learn more or to register and access the early-bird discount.

60 years a nurse in rural New South Wales

14 Aug 2023

CRANAplus Member Sandra Vicary retired recently, having just reached the milestone of 60 years of nursing in rural New South Wales. She remembers asking permission to marry as a young nursing sister, caring for one of Australia’s first kidney transplant patients, and working through the “Y2K” scare.

San­dra as a young nurse.

Sandra’s nurs­ing reg­is­tra­tion ear­ly in her career.

Inspired by a vis­it to a bush nurs­ing post arranged by her school, San­dra walked into her small local hos­pi­tal on 16 Jan­u­ary, 1963 and inter­viewed suc­cess­ful­ly for a role as a cadet nurse. She was 16.

We wore a cap that con­fined all your hair,” San­dra remem­bers, The uni­form had short sleeves, navy and white stripes with a large white col­lar and cuffs, black stock­ings and black or brown shoes, of a par­tic­u­lar leather. Around the waist was a very heavy starched belt, held togeth­er with a buck­le of two sil­ver pieces.”

When she turned 17, San­dra com­menced as a trainee nurse. Each year a star was added to your cap, or a but­ton to your uni­form, to mark your progress.

You went to a Pre­lim­i­nary Train­ing School in six-week blocks and lived in the quar­ters,” San­dra recalls, and every day they taught you things like tem­per­a­tures, puls­es, tak­ing a blood pres­sure, bathing a patient. Then you went back to the ward.”

Dur­ing her fourth year, San­dra gained expe­ri­ence at the Coast Hos­pi­tal” – Prince Hen­ry Hos­pi­tal at Lit­tle Bay, Syd­ney. She recalls the hyper­bar­ic cham­ber for treat­ment of the bends and the lazarette for lep­rosy patients – among oth­er details. 

All the gar­dens and clean­ing out­side were done by pris­on­ers [from the near­by Long Bay Jail],” she says. They wore white uni­forms with num­bers on their back. All the bread used by the hos­pi­tal was baked at Long Bay Jail.

I saw two girls who were polio vic­tims on the iron lung. The first kid­ney trans­plant in New South Wales, and I think Aus­tralia, I nursed her…

You had to [slip her food through the door] under pur­ple light; and gown up and be quite ster­ile to go in.”

Towards the end of her train­ing, San­dra returned to the coun­try and to famil­iar nurs­ing tra­di­tions, includ­ing a reg­i­ment­ed pri­vate life.

We paid board and got fed, three meals a day,” San­dra recalls.

The sis­ters had their own table to sit at and so did the matron. When the matron walked into the din­ing room, every­one stood up and put their hands behind the back. When she sat down, you sat back down again.”

San­dra still found the pluck to ask the local hos­pi­tal board whether she could mar­ry the love of her life.

San­dra, a work­ing nurse for many years by this point, grad­u­at­ing from university.

The sil­ver nick­el plate worn on a waist belt in Sandra’s ear­ly workplace.

Because nurs­es couldn’t be mar­ried when I trained,” she explains. You had to get per­mis­sion. You still had to live in the nurs­es’ home, where we all lived, and could only go home to be with your hus­band on your days off.”

As the ring slid onto her fin­ger, her hair unfurled from the veil. The 70s were dawn­ing and the Aus­tralian nurs­ing sec­tor was becom­ing sec­u­lar and centralised.

Slow­ly, a lot of the hos­pi­tals gave up their nurs­ing train­ing; that was when edu­ca­tion of nurs­es at uni­ver­si­ty start­ed,” San­dra remembers. 

Lots of the build­ings were con­vert­ed… I went back and did a diplo­ma at what became Charles Sturt Uni­ver­si­ty – and [lat­er] a Bach­e­lor of Health Sci­ence, and one for men­tal health as well.”

She remem­bers the ear­ly days of the milk run” when the state ambu­lance service’s first two planes – Alpha Mike Goff” and Alpha Mike Bra­vo” – start­ed land­ing in Wag­ga Wag­ga every Mon­day and Thurs­day to retrieve patients to Sydney.

These ear­ly signs that tech­nol­o­gy would rev­o­lu­tionise health­care con­tin­ued to ful­fil their promise years lat­er when com­put­ers appeared on the ward. At larg­er hos­pi­tals, San­dra had to adapt to unfa­mil­iar tech, but
it was in the rur­al hos­pi­tals – where admin staff clocked off at 5pm – where the need for com­put­ing skills was greatest.

Then sud­den­ly, for a few wild days, the health­care industry’s grow­ing depen­den­cy on com­put­ers poised to back­fire. Gen Y and Z read­ers may be too young to remem­ber the Y2K scare.

I was on night shift at the high-depen­den­cy ward with 12 patients when they changed from the 1990s to the 2000s,” San­dra says, Just myself and anoth­er RN. All the exec­u­tives were upstairs. The boss­es, admin staff, IT staff – like buzzy bees.

We had two large wood­en doors you came through to get to our ward, out of the stair­well or lift. Oh, the antic­i­pa­tion, that some­one would open the door, come rush­ing in and say: you’ve got to do this, you’ve got to evacuate!’

But noth­ing hap­pened. The phones nev­er got dis­con­nect­ed; the com­put­ers just rolled over, nev­er shut down. About 4am, every­one packed up and went home. It was the year 2000.”

Through­out her career, San­dra found her pas­sion for aged care grow­ing and of all her career achieve­ments, she’s most proud of her advo­ca­cy in this space.

Some of the old­er mem­bers of our com­mu­ni­ty had said every­thing is done for the young – foot­ball, ten­nis, golf – all done for the young peo­ple. Noth­ing here for the oldies. We keep get­ting pushed aside’,” she says.

Hav­ing a nurs­ing back­ground in a hos­tel and nurs­ing home, and retire­ment vil­lage man­age­ment, I had a bit of an idea about that and thought let’s go for it, give it our best shot’.

I got togeth­er with that com­mu­ni­ty of 500 peo­ple and we formed a com­mit­tee to raise mon­ey to build aged care units for the social­ly dis­ad­van­taged in town. With con­tacts I had with an archi­tect, he drew up plans, and we start­ed to fundraise.

As the mon­ey came in and the momen­tum grew, the sup­port increased. With a grant from the Com­mon­wealth, we built the first two units. Peo­ple of the town and dis­trict could see it was going to happen.

San­dra among the rib­bon cut­ters at the Barel­lan Aged Care Facility.

When I left there, we had built five units, using one and a quar­ter mil­lion dol­lars in grants. I’ve had lots of oppor­tu­ni­ties, being a nurse – and not all of them in hospitals.” 

Reflect­ing on a career that has also includ­ed work­ing in prison health and as a DON, San­dra says there is no secret behind her 60 years of nurs­ing (that or she won’t tell us). She does, how­ev­er, have a few clos­ing reflec­tions as she bids farewell to scrubs.

Accept every­one you care for,” she advises. 

There are times when they frus­trate you and are doing the wrong thing and you have to be firm, but you can still treat them as a human being, polite­ly and with empa­thy. If you can treat every­one like you want your moth­er and father treat­ed, then I think you’ve done very well.

The cama­raderie, the friend­ships, the peo­ple I’ve met, the advances of med­i­cine and surgery – how won­der­ful to have got­ten to now and see what I’ve seen. Will some­one [who is start­ing out now] have that oppor­tu­ni­ty to see as much?”

Inter­est­ed in shar­ing your expe­ri­ence of work­ing in remote health? Per­haps there is a top­ic that you would like to see cov­ered in the CRANAplus Mag­a­zine? Get in touch with your sto­ry or sug­ges­tion at communications@​CRANAplus.​org.​au