When the invitation arrived to attend the 40th reunion of the start of my nursing training my immediate reaction was disbelief that it was that long ago. It seemed like yesterday that sixty-two young girls were arriving at the nurses home where we had to live-in for a minimum period of 9 months. Everyone was simultaneously excited at the prospect of the future yet apprehensive. We were young and naïve.
We trained in the hospital where we had learning blocks interspersed with time working in the wards. We saw life in the raw for which none of us had been pre-prepared. Living-in gave us a support system that the new university trained nurses don’t have. There was always someone in the nurses quarters that you could bounce off how bad your day had been. A person that was empathetic to your situation. We were all in it together and as such had formed close bonds. The university nurses will be unlikely to have reunions.
The day started with a trip to the hospital museum. Much of the memorabilia held there were instruments we’d used, uniforms we’d worn, paperwork we had written, beds made the way we made beds. We felt at home in this ward of antiquity. The hospital itself was unrecognisable. A huge new hospital stood where the three nurses homes had once housed young ladies. The state of the art “new” building constructed and finished whilst we were training was again scaffolding but this time for its demolition. Some of the old original wards remained but were no longer functioning as such and more buildings were in the process of being built. The nurses school was now a high-rise medical centre. It was eerie standing in the now deserted corridor remembering the buzz of activity that had once happened in these halls. Standing here I too started to feel like a relic of a bygone era.
The luncheon was held in Kirribilli overlooking Luna Park and Sydney Harbour. Thirty-nine women assembled squinting as they tried to recollect who each person was from forty years ago. Hospital names were given by way of an introduction as the name supplied to you by the hospital was one none of us had forgotten. The ice was broken for as soon as you knew the hospital name as you then knew the person. “Mathers, do you remember when your bag fell open in front of Home Sister when you were leaving to flat and a hospital sheet fell out at her feet?” “Power-Hill do you remember…..”. A few people were recognisable from those younger days seemingly having changed little whilst some, once you knew who they were you wondered how you had not recognised them immediately. Only two had altered so greatly that I would never have known who they were.
Naturally much of the conversation was about what everyone had done since the day they had left the hospital. No-one from the group had died although a couple of the absent women weren’t faring too well. Some had retired, some were still nursing, whilst others had made career changes and one was still and had never left our training hospital although she was not working in nursing. We were very aware that our numbers from this point would inevitably diminish.
Once we had exhausted our personal lives the conversation turned to nursing and the quality of nursing – now versus then. Without doubt all agreed that the nurses now do not come close to matching our nursing skills; with even those whose careers led them to nurse education agreeing. We might be in our golden years but we lived through the golden age of nursing and life generally. We weren’t stymied by legislation preventing us from doing devilish things, the world was generally safer, there were less cars on the roads and people took responsibility for their actions. We looked back on how innocent we had been at eighteen when for example a phone call to the nurses home invited off duty nurses to a swingers party on a boat in the harbour. A group of us went, totally unaware of what swingers were. We thought we were just going to dance on the boat. What a shock we had when we found out.
Looking back with this group of women made me realise with poignancy that the end of my life is closer than I usually think about. I look back with a great deal of joy, some sadness but with no regrets. I look forward with the same feelings.
Now that I am back home I am again the youngest in most of my pursuits. My elderly mother tells me today she probably has another ten years in her, my husband eleven years older than me is starting to show signs of age, his back hurts and his shoulders creak. Today is my birthday and celebrating it with both of them I feel like a spring chicken, younger than springtime and glad that I still have a child-like fascination with life, the world and everybody around me. Getting old, I decide, is not all that bad.