Prior to the development of vaccines there were several infections that posed a critical risk to children. Diphtheria, Scarlet fever and Whooping Cough would regularly run rampant through the population causing disability and death. The nurses of Prince Henry Hospital cared for thousands of children. Many caught the diseases themselves. The development of vaccines saved millions of lives.
Measles reached New South Wales in 1853. The mortality in 1912 at The Coast Hospital in 1920 was no less than 11.3 per cent. That year 550 cases were admitted to the hospital of whom sixty-two died. The most frequent causes of death, according to the hospital reports, was broncho-pneumonia and toxicity, with encephalitis appearing occasionally. Measles is now a vaccine preventable condition.
Mumps is a highly contagious disease that causes fever and inflammation of the face. Mumps can also lead to a range of serious inflammatory conditions encephalitis, meningitis, myocarditis and infertility. Mumps can also damage nerves, which can lead to deafness. In pregnant women, mumps can cause miscarriage during the first three months of pregnancy.
The 1920’s were good years at the Coast. The Medical Superintendent Colonel Millard had returned to his task of promoting the hospital with renewed vigour. The list of Honoraries in attendance read like a “Who’s Who” of Sydney’s leading doctors.
Matron Watson had welded the nursing staff into an efficient workforce but did not respond with much enthusiasm to the postwar changes in women’s fashions and social attitudes. She bitterly opposed mixed bathing on the beach but was overruled.
Alice Watson did not reject all modern inventions, she bought and drove an automobile, although she continued to be transported around the hospital in her horse-drawn vehicle.
During the decade existing buildings were changed and refurbished; an X-ray Plant was installed in 1924.
In 1927 the Coast Hospital established an Annexe in two military hut wards of the 4th Army General Repatriation Hospital at Randwick. The 4th A.G.H. had been set up as a temporary military hospital in 1915 on the vacant farm area of the Randwick Asylum for Destitute Children (1858-1914.)
May McGrath from Nowra started in August 1921 and after doing a midwifery course at Montrose, Burwood, remained on the staff until 1935.
She was quickly initiated into the art of scrubbing. The heavy wooden table in the centre of the ward was scrubbed daily (including the legs) by the probationer. The trick was to scrub with the grain and finish off with a damp duster. An unblemished table was a meritorious achievement.
One of the hospital tall stories concerned a new and confused probationer who was instructed by her guiding senior not to wash the legs on Sundays. Nurse obeyed and never washed the patients legs on Sundays. The mix-up was not discovered until a male patient asked Sister, “Why?
Jessie “Brodie” Wilson commenced in 1922. She trained as Nurse Brodie because there were several Wilsons on the staff. She described her experience:-
We worked long hours, the many hours overtime were not recorded. Days off were stopped and sometimes added to annual leave. A day off was usually preceded by a 4 to 8 pass, i.e., we worked from 6 a.m. to 4 p.m.; when a half day was granted we worked from 6 a.m. to 2 p.m., towards the end of my training a half day began at 12-30 p.m.
The night nurses Quarters were at La Perouse in the Cable Station. If we had a cooking lesson we would be back at the hospital at 2 p.m., the class would finish at 4 p.m. and then we would hang around the hospital until it was time to go on duty.
The theatre term was one month at a time, no set hours, on call day or night. A night shift was not instigated until the 1930’s. Our pay started at 16 shillings and twopence (the twopence was collected for cancer research) and rose to about 35 shillings in fourth year. We paid to sit for our final external examinations.
Our food was monotonous and we spent a lot of money on extra food from the shop in the grounds. The patient’s food was good, always delicious baked custards.
Our love life was practically nil impossible to make plans or keep appointments, time off stopped at a moment’s notice. We had annual balls and special trams would bring our partners to the hospital. These were highlights to remember…the Charlston, Black Bottom and waltzes were favourite dances.
The nurses stoked the furnaces in the ward boiler rooms at night which was hard work for young girls. The day nurses prepared the kerosene lamps for night duty, cleaned the blackened glass and trimmed the wicks.
Matron Watson was firm but just and kind. She always preceded her lectures by telling us that no matter how objectionable a patient was, he was some mother’s son and must be treated with kindness and dignity.
We were responsible for the care of the patient’s clothing, not always pleasant as hygiene was not much practised then. Matron impressed on us that they were all the patient owned and were precious to him or her. Many of our patients were derelicts rejected by other hospitals. They found it a haven. They were well cared for and I would say that each received more individual care than patients do today even in private hospitals. When wards became infected with bed-bugs, a squad we called “the buggers” would use blow-lamps on the beds. We had removed the patients of course.
Head lice were plentiful in the children’s wards. We shaved all their heads, even those with clean heads. The nurse had to be careful not to get infected with head lice especially if she had long hair.
All in all it was a hard life but a full one. It sounds as if we had a sordid time, not so, we were happy with our work, the friendships made have been lasting.