When Ruth Pope looks back over the decades, she says it’s been “a lovely life”.
The Gunnedah woman recently resigned from nursing under Hunter New England Health after more than 55 years in the profession and chatted to the NVI about the struggles and the rewards.
Mrs Pope’s nursing career began on January 17, 1963, when as a “young, very naive country kid” she started her training in the Royal Alexandra Hospital for Children in Sydney. In 1967, she went to the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital where she trained for six months. The following year, Mrs Pope found herself at the Royal Hospital for Women in Sydney where she trained in midwifery for a year.
It was a hard slog in the hospitals, with long hours, high expectations, a dominant hierarchy of authority, strict curfews on her days off and coming face-to-face with death and disease.
“Nursing was a hard profession then,” Mrs Pope said.
“There were some very tough old ward sisters around and I remember the first baby I had to lay out after she died and I was crying and the ward sister came in and I thought, ‘I’m in so much trouble here’ and once again this very strong woman said to me, ‘Nurse, the day you don’t cry after the death of a child, get out of nursing’ and walked out of the room. And I was 17 years of age.”
Mrs Pope said “as the years unfolded”, she predominantly worked in pediatrics in Sydney and England.
“Growing up, I always felt comfortable with children [and] I always had a strong role in the lives of my nieces and nephews,” she said.
“I always remember someone said to me, ‘I never see you that you haven’t got a child with you’.”
I’ve always kept strong ties with my nursing colleagues of yesteryears.Ruth Pope
In 1969, Mrs Pope headed overseas to England where she worked in the Princess Louise Hospital. It was on these foreign shores in a pub that she met a young man from Adelaide named Rex.
When they returned to Australia, Mrs Pope studied psychiatric nursing for a year in Sydney. In the early 1970s, they moved to Adelaide where she worked at the children's hospital for five years in pediatrics.
“That’s really where I consolidated my career,” she said.
“I thought I was well trained until I got there but I did ward administration there and charged a number of different wards.
“I guess that’s where I really consolidated my skills.”
The couple welcomed their first child Emily in 1974, and Greg in 1976. The family regularly visited Gunnedah to see Mrs Pope’s family and friends and “the tug of country life” saw them shift permanently in the late 1970s.
“It was a good move,” Mrs Pope said.
“I’ve always been very content living in Gunnedah. It’s been an amazing place to raise children.”
Mrs Pope worked at the Boggabri hospital then became the nursing director of the Mercy Sisters’ convent rest home in Gunnedah.
“In many ways it was my first time in aged care and probably some of the best years of my nursing life,” she said.
“It was a very special time in my nursing career.”
So many people enriched my life and taught me so much. I never stopped learning in those 55 years.Ruth Pope
Mrs Pope’s children attended St Xavier’s Primary School across the road and the nuns helped care for them after school until she finished work.
“I guess for the first time in nursing, I recognised the support and a family-friendly environment, which in previous years and places didn’t exist for women who worked full-time,” she said.
She worked at the convent home until the early 1980s, then went into community health in Gunnedah in 1986. She had completed a Bachelor of Health Science.
“Towards the end it was predominately immunisation and support for any health-related needs for people with disabilities,” she said.
“Immunisation was the most significant part of my work, which was just wonderful that I could finish my career doing that,” she said.
“I’m passionate about immunisation. In my early training years, I saw children dying from fates worse than death with vaccine-preventable diseases.”
I always remember someone said to me, ‘I never see you that you haven’t got a child with you’.Ruth Pope
Mrs Pope coordinated the school-based program, which was “very successful”.
“I always felt the work I did in immunisation was a labour of love,” she said.
Recently, Mrs Pope said a man on Facebook told her that she had immunised his grandmother, mother, himself and now his children.
The nurse has seen many changes over the decades in policies and procedures, vaccines, health and safety, community health, and within the staffing system itself.
Mrs Pope said she still keeps in touch with the nurses she trained with and met along the way.
“I’ve always kept strong ties with my nursing colleagues of yesteryears,” she said.
“There was great companionship.
“We went through a lot together and had to support each other, especially in those early years when the hierarchy system gave no support at all.”
I always felt the work I did in immunisation was a labour of love.Ruth Pope
Now that she has finished up at Gunnedah District Hospital after 32 years, she said she will miss working with patients and being part of the community health team.
“What I’m really going to miss as much as my clients, who certainly enriched my life over the years, is the friendship and support from not only the nurses but also some of the Allied Health people who I hope I will remain friends with for a very long time,” Mrs Pope said.
“Nursing has been an amazing career,” she said.
“So many people enriched my life and taught me so much. I never stopped learning in those 55 years.
“One of the loveliest things ever said to me was by a darling old man who was actually a preacher, and I did a procedure on him and he was in his early 90s by then and when I finished, he held my hand and he said, ‘I thank God the day you became a nurse’, and that statement is holistically how I feel my career has been.”