From teen in traction to top gun nurse


18 October 2021

Article from October 2021 INPractice

Janet Morris has left the building

It took being crunched by a car for a teenage Janet Morris to discover her true calling in life … nursing.

The then 18-year-old, an accountant clerk with Pulteney St tyre company MS McLeod, ended up in traction at the old RAH after being cleaned up by a car while crossing Pulteney St one morning. She suffered a broken femur.

“I was in there for quite a while, I ended up having to have surgery. But that’s when I realised that (nursing) was what I wanted to do,’’ Janet said.

That was back in the late 1970s. Fast forward to July 2, 2021, and Janet was wrapping up her final day as a Registered Nurse in the general medicine ward at the new RAH, the mother of two looking forward to a well-earned retirement.

The former Modbury Primary and Modbury High student first worked under the stewardship of nursing great, the late Pamela J Spry AM. The Director of Nursing at the old RAH from 1973 to 1984, Miss Spry passed away last January, aged 96. 

Janet completed her then Enrolled Nurse training at the RAH in 1979 – a time when nurses were required to wear the dreaded shovel hats. The hats were subsequently axed by Miss Spry who called them ‘‘a sign of occupational servitude”. 

“We just thought they were an absolute pain,’’ Janet recalls. “They used to come off all the time with the curtains around the patients, you’d get them all caught up.

“If they were crooked you got told off about that. It was really, really strict back in those days.’’

Those were the days when nurses used to play pranks on their students, such as sending them off to the hospital storeroom to pick up a pair of fallopian tubes, or terrifying student night-shift nurses with tales of the ‘old grey nurse’, who, legend has it, died at the hands of another nurse and stalked the creaky corridors of the RAH at night.

They were also the days when young nurses used to live on campus at the RAH and would break curfew by sneaking off to the nearby Botanical Hotel.

“We were always treated (by the hotel’s male patrons) as objects, that was the feeling we all got, it was not hard getting a date or a free drink,’’ Janet recalls. “We weren’t acknowledged or respected as professionals back in those days.’’

How things have changed. Nurses have since 1994 continually topped Roy Morgan Research polls as the most highly regarded and trusted of all professions.

But back in Janet’s early days nurses were completely subservient to the “God” doctors and paid less than their male equivalents.

“There wasn’t even equal pay when I started nursing,’’ Janet says. 

“In 1979, I was getting $3 an hour - $120 for a 40-hour week - and that wasn’t equal pay (a male on the same level would receive more, simply for being male).

“When I trained I think it was $2.50c an hour and when I finished my training I received 50c more.
“You have to put it in perspective though, things were a lot cheaper. I could probably go and get a pie for 50c.

“But it wasn’t a well-paid job. To me I’ve always believed back then it was a calling and it really was. No one wanted to go into nursing back in those days.’’

Nursing duties were very different back then too.

“We used to scrub the bedpans and the urinals and turn the trolleys upside down and scrub all the wheels, so they rolled smoothly,’’ Janet says. 

“We used to damp dust all the patients’ lockers and their overways. We didn’t have cleaners to do that, that was a nursing duty. 

“We weren’t allowed to sit in the cafeteria with anyone above our rank. 

“We used to stand up when the doctors and matrons came into the room. If you were on the ward you’d stand up with your hands behind your back and you didn’t say a word. You would never ask them a question, it just wasn’t done. Only senior nurses were allowed to interact with the doctors during ward rounds.’’

After 30 years of nursing Janet, frustrated at the then lack of opportunities for Enrolled Nurses, decided to transition to a Registered Nurse. 

“I was 51 when I started uni (2009) to become an RN after a lot of things being taken away from us as an EN over the years,’’ she says.

“It went ridiculous for a while. We weren’t allowed to do BGLs (blood glucose levels), just simple things like pricking people’s fingers.

“Over the years an EN’s duties were just cut down and then they started to build up again, but by that time it was like ‘I think I’ll just explore more options’.

“I think at that time there were more doors open for an RN than an EN. That’s no longer the case because they have the diploma now and advanced diplomas for ENs, they have a lot more responsibilities now.

Despite being the daughter of a typical hard-working Aussie battler and proud union man, Janet didn’t join the ANMF until 1994. She has been a WSR since 2016.

“I joined to get backing, to have someone behind me. Back in my day we used to soak thermometers and if you broke one we always got told ‘If you break one it’ll come out of your pay. If you drop someone’s false teeth, or something, that will come out of your pay’.

“Now I don’t know if it ever did happen or whether that was just a threat, but that was the kind of mentality. I suddenly realised if something happened who’s going to back me? Not my employer, I’d be the scapegoat.’’

ANMF (SA Branch) CEO/Secretary Adj Associate Professor Elizabeth Dabars AM wrote a letter of “heartfelt congratulations” to Janet on her retirement.

“Thank you for your passion and compassion in the profession. By your actions over the course of your 43-year nursing career, you have made an invaluable contribution,’’ Ms Dabars wrote.

“Most importantly, by your actions you have improved the lives of both your colleagues and patients. On behalf of the ANMFSA team, it has been an absolute delight to work with you during your time as a WSR since 2016 and to have you as a member since January 1994.’’

In the 43 years since she graduated, Janet has seen many changes to her profession. Nurses, she says, have won the respect and hearts of the Australian public.  

“It’s never been more noticeable than with COVID. I was absolutely in awe when I’d go to the shops when they were open early in the morning for the nurses and the shopkeeper would just be ‘Thank you so much for everything you’re doing’,’’ she says.

“It was like ‘wow’. I think we’ve earned a lot of respect during that time. I think we have over the years too.

“It’s a very well-paid job now. But sometimes I don’t think I get paid enough for the things I have to put up with. 

“Is it enough for everything I do? No, I don’t think it is.

“The hitting, the violence from the patients, the abuse from families, that’s rank, and happens frequently in the RAH and we’re supposed to put up with that.’’

Janet says she’ll miss the camaraderie she has with her colleagues. She’s still friends with her class of ’78 graduates.

She’ll also miss working in Palliative Care. A voluntary assisted dying supporter, she says it was an absolute privilege to comfort palliative patients and share their final moments with them.

What she won’t miss are patients who flout RAH rules and smoke inside the building, despite the threat of fines.

As a student nurse she was shocked by a 1978 Australian short film called Hospitals Don’t Burn Down, a fictional flick about a hospital set ablaze by a hastily discarded cigarette. Many nurses die horrible deaths in the ensuing fireball.

“It’s an amazing film. That was 43 years ago I saw that and it still has an impact on me today, it was part of our orientation to the RAH,’’ Janet says. “I wish nurses could see things like that today.

“We have patients in the RAH who smoke in their bathrooms. We’ve got oxygen coming out of the walls and they’re smoking.’’ 

Click here to read the October 2021 Edition of INPractice