Nurs­ing sis­ters do­ing it for them­selves

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Sarah Demp­ster

Liz Byrski’s In Love and War: Nurs­ing He­roes and Colleen Ryan Clur’s Pixie An­nat: Cham­pion of Nurses both tell dif­fi­cult and inspiring sto­ries. Byrski anatomises the heroic mythol­ogy of the Battle of Bri­tain and the med­i­cal treat­ment pro­vided to se­verely burned RAF air­men at the max­illo­fa­cial hos­pi­tal in the small Sus­sex town of East Grin­stead. Clur con­sid­ers the life of Queens­land nurse Pixie An­nat and her le­gacy as a hugely in­flu­en­tial fig­ure in Aus­tralian med­i­cal his­tory.

Both books draw on nurs­ing ex­pe­ri­ences borne out of World War II. How­ever, while Byrski ex­am­ines the bound­aries be­tween emo­tional re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion, mas­cu­line iden­tity, sex­ual ha­rass­ment and fe­male lib­er­a­tion in the ex­per­i­men­tal Ward III at East Grin­stead, Clur tells the story of An­nat’s nurs­ing ca­reer as it extends be­yond the war to the “top possie” at Bris­bane’s St An­drew’s Hos­pi­tal.

At the open­ing of her book, Byrski re­flects on the town in which she grew up, pop­u­lated by “men with ter­ri­ble faces”. She re­calls a child­hood en­counter with one of th­ese young, dam­aged men, his face “a mass of pur­ple scars”, “bul­bous lips” and “eyes — one an­gled slightly lower than the other” that seemed “to travel in dif­fer­ent di­rec­tions un­der the scarred and brow­less fore­head”. Faint­ing at the sight of him and in­jur­ing her­self in the fall, she woke up in emer­gency still reel­ing from the sight of the dis­fig­ured man. Her child­hood fear trans­formed into adult shame at how her re­ac­tion must have af­fected a bro­ken young man.

The mas­cu­line world of the RAF was al­lur­ing to young men with an ap­petite for risk. But the air­craft that were so in­te­gral to their sense of iden­tity were also the source of some of the most se­vere in­juries of the war. Trac­ing the de­sign of the air­craft, the fly­ers’ burns mapped ter­ri­ble pat­terns on their bod­ies. The cock­pit was sit­u­ated be­hind the main fuel tanks, which ex­ploded when hit by en­emy fire, torch­ing the face, neck, hands and the in­sides of the thighs with fuel and fire. The un­re­lent­ing pain of in­jury, the fear of a lost fu­ture, and the cri­sis of iden­tity and mas­culin­ity cre­ated by fa­cial and bod­ily dis­fig­ure­ment meant the men in Ward III were se­verely trau­ma­tised.

The re­con­struc­tion of th­ese air­men phys­i­cally and men­tally was the in­spi­ra­tion for a ground­break­ing ther­a­peu­tic ex­per­i­ment pi­o­neered by Archibald McIn­doe, a gifted max­illo­fa­cial sur­geon. He treated them with re­spect, never shield­ing them from the truth of their in­juries. So adamant was McIn­doe on this point that in an ef­fort to re­duce their fear, he en­cour­aged his pa­tients to sit in an ob­ser­va­tion gallery to watch him op­er­ate on other pa­tients in the ward. For a man who many saw as un­sym­pa­thetic and de­tached, McIn­doe showed an ex­tra­or­di­nary em­pa­thy with “his boys”.

As part of their re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion, McIn­doe felt young men should have ac­cess to pretty young nurses. McIn­doe’s daugh­ter tells the au­thor, “My fa­ther wanted the best nurses and he wanted them to be beau­ti­ful and they had to be the sort of women who didn’t mind hav­ing their bot­tom pinched.’’ The bound­aries be­tween ac­cept­able and un­ac­cept­able be­hav­iour came to be de­fined by what McIn­doe thought “his boys” needed for their re­cov­ery, rather than what might be fair to his nurses.

Thus Byrski ques­tions the popular con­struc­tion of World War II as a lib­er­at­ing ex­pe­ri­ence for women, us­ing in­ter­views with nurses from East Grin­stead. Joyce, who vol­un­teered as a nurse there in 1940, re­calls that some­times the pa­tients would “try and kiss you or put their arms round you, maybe sneak up be­hind you … so ev­ery day, go­ing to work, you knew you’d not only have to do your job, but you’d have to cope with that”. Asked why she didn’t leave, Joyce replies, “I was so ig­no­rant I didn’t even know I could leave. And what would I say to mum?” Now in her 90s, she ad­mits to feel­ing “stupid and ashamed”, telling the au­thor it was a “great re­lief” to fi­nally re­late her ac­count to some­one.

Like­wise, Nancy vol­un­teered to work at East Grin­stead, where one of her pa­tients be­came her first hus­band. Dur­ing her in­ter­view Nancy is oddly re­sis­tant to Byrski’s ques­tion­ing and, as the au­thor fi­nally re­solves to leave, sud­denly states that McIn­doe “didn’t do us any favours … In Love and War: Nurs­ing He­roes By Liz Byrski Fre­man­tle Press, 216pp, $24.99 Pixie An­nat: Cham­pion of Nurses By Colleen Ryan Clur UQP, 111pp, $34.95 he told the men they were he­roes and that meant they could have what­ever they wanted ... my hus­band, he thought that was his due. Un­faith­ful to me all his life he was. Two women he had af­fairs with turned up at his fu­neral. No, what­ever he did for the men, he never did us any favours.”

Most vi­o­lently of all, Alice re­calls a pa­tient drag­ging her into an un­lit pas­sage and try­ing to bully her into hav­ing sex with him. Though she man­aged to es­cape, she sus­tained bruis­ing on her arm and was trau­ma­tised by the in­ci­dent. Like the other nurses, she didn’t tell her par­ents be­cause at a time when “sex and nu­dity [were] con­sid­ered rude and danger­ous” she was “sure they’d think it was my fault”.

An­nat’s nurs­ing ex­pe­ri­ence grew out from the shadow of World War II but reaches far be­yond the wartime nurs­ing nar­ra­tive. In her book, Clur fo­cuses on An­nat, now in her 80s, and her cel­e­brated ca­reer as a nurse, ma­tron, hos­pi­tal chief ex­ec­u­tive and com­mit­ted mem­ber of mul­ti­ple med­i­cal boards.

Bored of the repet­i­tive na­ture of sec­re­tar­ial work, and in­spired by her mother’s wartime nurs­ing ca­reer, the teenaged Pixie filled in a train­ing ap­pli­ca­tion form early in 1948. As a nurse in post­war Australia, she worked 12-hour days, start­ing at 6am and fin­ish­ing at 6pm, with du­ties that in­cluded clean­ing bed pans un­til they shone “like mir­rors”.

The au­thor ob­serves with ad­mi­ra­tion that “the low pay, hard work and low sta­tus as a ju­nior nurse” did not de­ter An­nat from the pro­fes­sion. In fact, her pas­sion for nurs­ing en­thused her at a time when young nurses were be­com­ing more out­spo­ken about their wages and work­ing con­di­tions. Keen to lobby for change, An­nat was voted the first pres­i­dent of the Stu­dent Nurses Unit es­tab­lished at Bris­bane Gen­eral Hos­pi­tal in 1951.

She con­tin­ued the fight for im­proved wages and con­di­tions when she be­came a ma­tron of St An­drew’s Hos­pi­tal in 1965 at age 35. At the Ma- trons As­so­ci­a­tion Con­fer­ence that year she raised with the direc­tor-gen­eral of health her con­cerns over Aus­tralian nurse ed­u­ca­tion. He sug­gested that “nice girls like you shouldn’t be in­volved in industrial re­la­tions … you know, Dearie, nurses only have to rub backs and carry pans.” An­nat wit­tily replied, “Well, I hope you are not very sick when you come to hos­pi­tal, be­cause if that’s all they do for you, you will die.”

Pro­moted again to the po­si­tion of chief ex­ec­u­tive in 1978, An­nat’s ca­reer ad­vance­ment was a sig­nif­i­cant achieve­ment when women were still rou­tinely over­looked for po­si­tions of author­ity. Work­ing 16-hour days, five days a week, as well as Satur­day morn­ings to “catch up on all the things that hap­pened dur­ing the week”, and main­tain­ing her ex­tracur­ric­u­lar du­ties as pres­i­dent of the nurses union, there was no doubt her com­mit­ment to St An­drew’s and Australia’s health­care sys­tem dom­i­nated her adult work­ing life.

It is with a de­sire to move be­yond burned faces and pa­tient care that Byrski and Clur as­sess the na­ture of heroic myth, med­i­cal treat­ment and nurs­ing con­di­tions in East Grin­stead and Australia, re­veal­ing nurs­ing women to be the en­dur­ing strength of the mod­ern med­i­cal pro­fes­sion.

A nurse helps air­men hav­ing their noses re­built in the Queen Vic­to­ria Hos­pi­tal in East Grin­stead dur­ing World War


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