Memories of the Mater

Calvary Mater Newcastle has a proud history of being at the heart of our community, and this year celebrates 100 years of service. 

 Nowadays, as well as serving the local community through its critical care, medical and surgical services Calvary Mater Newcastle is recognised as a leading research centre. The hospital also provides specialist medical care in a range of cancer services, palliative care, and toxicology.  

To celebrate Calvary Mater Newcastle’s centenary Aurora asked one of its longest serving employees, Ludmilla (Milly) Sneesby, to share a reflection of her time at the hospital. As we go to print, Milly is preparing for retirement, but as you will read, she has created memories at the Mater that will last a lifetime.  

I started my nursing training at the hospital in February 1974. This training undoubtedly changed my life forever. I was 17 years old and straight out of school, naive and innocent. I had so much to learn not only in nursing but in life.  

At the time, the training school was headed by Sr Vern Dilley and of course the Sisters of Mercy. I remember my tutor Sr Ferry telling me I would never make a nurse and here I am over 48 years later.  

I have wonderful memories of living in the Nurses’ Home…… fun, laughter, and forming forever friendships. In those days we didn’t have access to psychologists, clinical supervision, meditation and the like, but in the evenings, we would provide our own counselling, debrief and reflect on our practice in the smoke-filled haze of the tearoom.

Sr Kath Gleeson was our surrogate mother. She had the unenviable job of making sure we kept our rooms tidy, polished our shoes, wore our hair correctly and came home on time. We could go home on our days off, but when staying in the home, we had to be home by 10pm and one night a week, midnight. Coming from a strict background, I thought this curfew was freedom. However, if we arrived even one minute late, we would have to report to the night supervisor who would eventually unlock the door after much chastising.   

Despite the strict rules we always had great support and were made to feel valued. As Matron, Sr Mary De Lellis, once commented, she could always tell a “Mater Nurse”. 

One of the major advancements for nurses since then, was in the pan room. In those days pans were emptied into the toilet, scrubbed with ajax, rinsed then plunged into a large vat of boiling water. After waiting 15 seconds we gingerly fished out the pan with a hook, careful not to splash ourselves with boiling water and who knows what else! 

Another advancement was the introduction of lifters and slide sheets. One sign of being a “good nurse” was the ability to be a “good lifter” having to position and lift patients, obviously putting ourselves at risk. 

Machines have now been invented to safely deliver IV therapy, I remember having to count the drops, losing count and having to start again. The patient would move their arm and the drop flow would change and we started again. 

We were certainly ‘Jacks of all trades’. We served the meals, and cooked and cleaned. Tidy rounds were done routinely, wiping down tables, emptying ash trays (yes smoking was allowed inside the hospital), washing beds, and attending to flowers. Allied health services were limited. The only occupational therapist I was aware of was in the children’s ward. Mrs Gee was our only social worker and you went down to physio if you broke a leg. 

In 1985 hospital training was moved to the university. It was a time of change and challenge. There was trepidation among some hospital trained nurses. Comments such as the university nurses will think they are too good to do the “dirty work” and they think they know everything, were often heard. 

The opposite actually occurred. Young men (no male nurses during my training) and women came armed with nursing skills and knowledge. The qualities of good nurses have never changed – empathy, kindness and compassion.

Nursing has become a profession, a discipline in its own right, not just a vocation. Our communities recognise the amazing work, dedication and talent that nurses bring to their work each and every shift.  

From a teenager to a grandmother, I have grown with and from the Mater. It is with sadness but also with excitement that I am facing the next stage of my life - retirement. 

My time spent in general nursing and the children’s ward, midwifery suites and operating theatres and finally, in palliative care, has taught me much about life. I am so thankful to those in my career who have inspired, enriched and shaped my world more than they will ever know.  

To work with people when they are at their most vulnerable and honest has been an absolute honour and I will be forever grateful to have been a small part of their lives. It might sound cliché, but they have taught me to make every day count.

I know I am leaving the Mater in great hands. Our current generation of nurses have all the qualities needed for this challenging but incredibly rewarding profession. The qualities I’m sure Sr Mary de Lellis would have recognised in her ‘Mater Nurses’ then and now.  

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Lizzie Watkin Image
Lizzie Watkin

Lizzie is Team Leader Content for the Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle.

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