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U3A Writing: Second Chance

Wilma Schmidt was delighted to be given a chance to return to nursing, the career which she loved.

How often do we get a second chance to do something better than we did the first time, or even just to have a shot at something we love doing? I was fortunate to resume a career that I had put to one side in favour of my marriage and family.

I first entered nursing just before my 18th birthday, as a wide-eyed young lady who had been given a very protected upbringing. As it was not so long since I had left school, I was still in the learning mode and did well at my nursing exams.

The next three years was a very busy time as I did duty in every ward and hospital department. We attended lectures and studied in our own free time, after shifts ended or on days off. By the time my graduation came around, I was 21 and with an engagement ring on my hand.

Suddenly I was able to earn a decent amount, not the pittance that I had been paid while training. I worked in private hospitals as a reliever, or did one-on-one nursing, which was mostly for the very ill or very wealthy. After 18 months of this and a healthier bank account, I was married.

My second chance to return to nursing came many years later, in a roundabout way. We were desperately clinging to our lifestyle in Mildura when George's masters in the Law Department gave him a posting back in Melbourne. At the same time the media was full of stories of the crisis taking place in our hospitals. There were beds closing, surgery waiting lists months long and a critical nursing shortage.

I had never contemplated a return to nursing in all the years in between. There had been no part-time work to maintain my competency. The only hospital I had been in was the midwifery hospital!

As none of the family wanted to relinquish our country lifestyle, a logical solution seemed to be presenting itself. And so the decision was made for George to resign, and I applied to a nursing school and was accepted, and told to be ready in 10 days.

Leaving home and family in Mildura for Melbourne meant a big disruption in our lives, as I was to be away four months, and our youngest children were aged nine and twelve.

Everything fell into place so easily. My single sister, Margaret lived at Albert Park, and welcomed me to come and stay with her. Her home was just seven minutes’ drive to the School of Nursing in St Kilda Road.

But within two weeks, Margaret left on a planned trip to Florence, to spend eight weeks there. Fortunately there was enough time for me to learn how to manage all her new fangled gadgets. It was 1986. I'd never had anything to do with a microwave oven. I learnt how to program her VCR and manage her security system. There were times during the next eight weeks when I accidentally walked through the beam in the dark or couldn't punch in the pin number quickly enough, and the whole street knew, the horn was so deafening.

At Western General Hospital where we did our practical experience, we were nicknamed the "Recycled Sisters" or "Mum's Army." I found it most rewarding to be back in a profession where in spite of the menial nature of the work, it was possible to render both spiritual and bodily help.

Armed with my second certificate, I arrived back just weeks before the Mildura Private Hospital was to open, so there were plenty of positions to be filled. After an interview with Matron Marie Yapp at the old established Base hospital, I was given a beige uniform and rostered for work in Ward 7.

Good old Ward 7 is hard to forget. It was on the ground floor close to the reception desk and a haven for the old vagrants from around town, who came in regularly to get patched up. Some of these old derros could be absolutely charming, and I loved being back in the thick of it. Annie Lynch, the Charge Nurse was much loved by them and often received little gifts of perfume or cake-mix which they had nicked off a shop counter somewhere.

The family now had to get used to my erratic shifts. Sometimes I was not there at breakfast, and only the next day I was not there at bed-time.

Over the next twelve years I had some really wonderful experiences, and, because I had come back to nursing as a mature adult in my 40s, I know that I responded to them more effectively than I would have in my 20s. To be able to share those great moments when a sick patient turns the corner to recovery, or to help ease another patient through his last illness and share the private circle of grief with his family must make nursing one of the most privileged professions.

Though circumstances forced me into the decision to return to work to be a joint bread winner, I really appreciate the second chance that I was given.

When it came time for me to resign in 1997 because of a lower back strain that wouldn't heal, I, like dozens of other similarly affected nurses, felt a sense of loss and frustration. At the same time, I have countless good memories of my nursing career, and I made lots of life-long friends.

I can find a parallel here with Benjamin Franklin when he said: At twenty, the will reigns, at thirty, the wit, and at forty, it is the wisdom.

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