Nursing trio has spent over 100 years caring for the Greater Shepparton community

By Charmayne Allison

Nurses across Greater Shepparton will be celebrated today to mark International Nurses Day. The World Health Organization has also designated 2020 the International Year of the Nurse and the Midwife in honour of the 200th anniversary of the birth of Florence Nightingale on May 12.

Today Charmayne Allison speaks to three nurses with almost 125 years of service between them about what being a nurse — and helping the Goulburn Valley people — means to them.

You can't help but feel a sense of honour, sitting between Liz Mulcahy, Pam Hauwert and Robyn Riddington, because these women are truly exceptional.

They have worked a combined 104 years as nurses at Shepparton Private Hospital; marathon innings which would fill most of us with awe, but which they simply summarise as "rewarding".

Robyn Riddington has worked at Shepparton Private Hospital for 30 years; Pam Hauwert has been there for 33 years; and Liz Mulcahy has been at the hospital since the day it opened — 41 years.

That's 104 years in total, working closely with patients and their families, celebrating with them through the highs and comforting them through the lows. More than a century combined as a source of care and support to the countless locals who have walked through the hospital's front doors.

As the three nurses sit and reminisce on their years at the local health service, there is a lot of wisdom, endless stories, even moments where they all giggle like schoolgirls.

Such long careers could be the recipe for bitterness or apathy. And yet, after all these years, Pam, Liz and Robyn claim they still leave work each day with smiles on their faces.

“Every day is rewarding,” Robyn said. "I go home happy knowing I've helped someone.”

Like many other nurses of her era, Robyn dove straight into training at the tender age of 17.

For young women in that conservative time, it was a rude awakening.

“We were only kids,” Robyn said.

“Suddenly I was seeing naked men. I didn't have a brother and hadn't had a boyfriend.

“It was so alien to me, but I learnt quickly.”

During training, Robyn lived in a nurses’ home.

All trainees had to be in bed by 10.30 pm — and a night duty nurse roamed the halls and inspected the rooms with a flashlight to ensure the rules were followed.

“Anybody missing would be reported to the night matron,” Robyn said.

“We could have one pass a year to stay out until 2.30 am if we wanted to go to a ball. That was it.”

After completing her nursing training at Epworth Hospital and midwifery at The Royal Women's Hospital, Robyn worked at Fairfield Infectious Diseases Hospital before taking 16 years off to raise her four children.

She then retrained at Melbourne's Alfred Hospital before settling in Shepparton, where she has since worked full-time for 30 years, heading up the Day Procedure Unit at Shepparton Private Hospital.

“I actually started the unit. The hospital was only 10 years old when I came here,” she said.

“Throughout the years, it went from a tiny unit to a large unit, so now there's two of us leading the team.”

Shepparton Private Hospital stalwart Liz can still remember the precise day she started there: the day it opened — September 3, 1979.

“We all sat on the floor in the foyer because there were no chairs and there was still building equipment all over the place,” she said.

Liz came to Shepparton 10 years after completing her training in Mooroopna.

“As women, we had three career options back then — teacher, nurse or office worker,” Liz said.

Unlike today's bachelor's degree, nursing training was completed on the hospital floor.

“When I started my midwifery training at The Royal Women's Hospital, I had to observe 10 births before I could deliver a baby,” Liz said.

“The first birth I saw, I was crammed in with students, nurses and doctors, watching a 16-year-old scream and cry as she gave birth.

“I'm a fainter, so I had to walk out for fresh air. It took six births before I could stay the whole time.

“But every time that baby came out, it was so moving.”

Once her training was complete, Liz had a short stint in Bendigo before diving into full-time work in Tatura.

Pulling back to part-time to have children, she finally came to Shepparton in 1979.

“They'd lost surgery and maternity in Tatura and I didn't want to do aged care, so I came here,” Liz said.

“I didn't plan to stay 40 years but I enjoy the work, so I still come.

“Plus Pam says I can't leave.”

“Otherwise I'll have to do her work,” Pam said with a laugh.

Throughout her years at the hospital, Liz has worked in perioperative nursing alongside surgeons and anaesthetists.

She is currently a clinical nurse specialist in theatre, looking after the ophthalmic surgeons.

“I set up theatre and make sure the surgeons have all the equipment they need,” she said.

“Working with eyes is particularly rewarding, because patients walk out seeing after struggling with their sight for a long time.”

Liz is backed by Pam, who is her "understudy" in theatre.

Unlike Liz and Robyn, Pam launched her career as a "mature-age" nurse after beginning her training at the age of 25.

“I was never going to go into this field, I didn't want to fit into the slot of nurse or teacher,” she said.

“But after coming back from a trip to New Zealand, I fell into this job.”

Training in Mooroopna, she started at Shepparton Private Hospital in 1980 before taking a couple of years off to have children.

Pam now works in theatre, mostly as the scrub nurse, handing out instruments to the surgeons during procedures.

“It's a job I absolutely love. Nursing has been very good to me,” Pam said.

The three nurses have seen their fair share of changes in the industry throughout the years, as medical advances slashed procedure and recovery times.

“For instance, 30 years ago a patient would have stayed in the hospital for 10 days after cataract surgery, with their head between sandbags,” Liz said.

“Now, it's a day case. That's technology for you.”

Pam, Robyn and Liz said they had been lucky to escape traumatic experiences in their many decades in the job.

“I hear heartbreaking stories almost every day in the Day Procedure Unit from patients or relatives,” Robyn said.

“But you become resilient. In the early training days, you quickly learn to step back emotionally.”

“Although, as soon as anybody cries, I'm done. I cry too,” Liz said.

Unlike Liz and Robyn, Pam has seen a patient die.

“You don't forget it,” she said.

“But I've always been able to switch off.”

The three nurses have offered care and support to countless patients and their families throughout the years.

Although this has looked different in recent months.

“Because of coronavirus, no human touch is allowed,” Liz said.

“I've been finding it really hard, because even a hand on the shoulder can calm people down.

“It will be interesting to see how easily we'll return to using touch after this is all over.”

While they've all had slightly different experiences, the three nurses agree on one key point — a positive culture is what's kept them here all these decades.

“Working with my colleagues has been so rewarding,” Robyn said.

“And patients can feel it. I'm blown away by the number of people I discharge who say, ‘This colonoscopy has been a wonderful experience'.

“A lot of patients expect the worst and are pleasantly surprised. That's the great reward of looking after people. That's what keeps me going.”