Today, Mum, Teresa Bernadette Coghlan née Winter (1917-2010)—known as Berna—would have been 100 years old. Wow. Hard to imagine. To commemorate her ‘centenary’ I’ve put together some research regarding her nursing training in Melbourne (1939-1942) during WW2.
The story goes that Mum gained no pleasure from working behind the bar at her aunties’ hotel, the Royal Hotel in Sunbury. And at the age of 21 she ‘ran away’ to St Vincent’s Hospital to take up nursing training where two of her older sisters, Phyllis and Dorrie, had preceded her.
Mum loved nursing. Dad, my siblings and I certainly benefited from her knowledge, skills and common sense. She didn’t officially finish her training, however, but she never regretted the decision to leave. Marrying Dad, a wireless operator in the RAAF, while he was on leave was more important to her than anything. And the prospect of him returning to serve overseas made her decision to leave even easier, being fully aware that on leaving she could not return as a married woman. That was the rule of the day.
The Archives at St Vincent’s Hospital, Melbourne
Mum’s nursing record
A visit to the St Vincent’s archives earlier this year revealed some great memorabilia. The archivist, Barbara Cytowicz, kindly retrieved all the information she had on Mum and Mum’s sisters, Phyllis and Dorrie, prior to my arrival.
As luck would have it Mum’s record had been saved. It was fabulous to see it (see below).
The significant dates are recorded: starting and finishing, sick leave and holidays, wards she worked on, external training, and marks.
A study of the dates reveals another reason she didn’t finish her training before getting married; she had 7 months of sick leave. I’ll talk about that later…
Mum’s nursing training details
Mum’s training began on 27 July 1939 and ended on 30 November 1942. Mum left the hospital voluntarily to prepare for her wedding. And at the time of her wedding on 16 January 1943 she was 3 months off officially finishing and graduating.
Theoretically, Mum should have finished before she left but periods of sick leave pushed out her finishing date. Without the sick leave she would have finished in July 1942, that is, three years after starting.
First episode of sick leave 21 August 1939—10 September 1939:
Mum’s first episode of ‘sick leave’ was only a month after she started training. Her father William Thomas Rupert WINTER had died on 20 August 1939. He collapsed and died at a dance in the church hall at Iona, Gippsland. Mum’s sister, Phyllis, delivered the news to her at St Vincent’s. Mum went home to the farm to attend the funeral.
Mum told me her father was lying in state in the front parlour of the family home. A not uncommon Irish custom. The requiem Mass was held in Iona then the family travelled, probably nearly 3 hours to Sunbury, her father’s birthplace, for the burial.
The farm in Iona was sold in 1940 and Mum’s mother moved to Sandringham where the family had previously spent their holidays. This is where Mum stayed on her days off.
WINTER—On the 20th August (suddenly) at Iona, William Thomas Rupert, beloved husband of Catherine Mary, and loving father of Irene (Mrs. L. Mahony), William, Leo (deceased), Phyllis, Edward, Dudley, Doreen, Roy (Rev. Brother Winter C.S.S.R.), Berna, Joyce and May, late of Sunbury, aged 65 years.—R.I.P.
WINTER—Requiem Mass will be celebrated for the repose of the soul of the late WILLIAM THOMAS RUPERT WINTER the dearly loved husband of Catherine Mary of Iona. THIS DAY (Tuesday, 22nd August) at (?)8 am at St Joseph’s, Iona. The funeral will move from the church at 12 (noon) for St Mary’s RC Church Sunbury, leaving there at (?)3 pm for the Sunbury Cemetery. Friends are respectfully invited to attend. W. BROWNE Funeral Director, Bunyip. Phone (?).
Second episode of sick leave 8 November 1939 to 10 June 1940:
This was the long period of sick leave, just over 7 months. I’m presuming this was to recover from a foot operation. She told me that she developed a bursa on her heel after a wheelchair ran into the back of her foot. The orthopaedic surgeon at St Vincent’s, Dr Tom King, attended the operation.
Eileen Vaughan’s (née Cattanach) memories
Another fabulous document retrieved by Barbara was a compilation of nurse training memories put together by Eileen Vaughan née Cattanach. The name jumped out at me. I remember Mum talking about Eileen in her nursing days.
I immediately spotted Mum in the photo upper left hand corner of the page above. I’d seen this photo many times before as it was the same one in our family album (see below).
Mum, ‘Berna Winter’, is left, front and Eileen is second from right, front.
Some other photos in our family album which also appear in Eileen’s memoirs:
After returning from her extended sick leave Mum ended up in Eileen Cattanach’s group and as luck would have it in the same group as her school friend from Iona, Gippsland, Sadie O’Farrell.
Eileen’s memoirs were a wonderful find. And being in the same group, I could envisage Mum’s experiences would have been similar to Eileen’s.
Some extracts from Eileen’s reminiscences:
I remember Mum telling me how she used to have to ‘prepare’ the viewing room for relatives who were coming into the hospital to view a deceased member of the family. According to Eileen, the nurse was expected to,
Bring the body out (of the mortuary) after checking wrist bands. Light candles either side. Fix sheet. Stay there.
Not for the faint hearted I wouldn’t imagine.
These were held in the Pathology or X-ray department:
The lectures were held after duty hours, usually by an honorary doctor and did not finish until 9.30 pm- we would all be so tired it was difficult to keep our eyes opened or concentrate.
Sounds pretty archaic to me and fortunately, not a practice that continued into my training.
Generally lights out in the nurses’ home at 10pm.
Late passes until 11.30 pm were granted once a week. If a nurse came in later than this, late passes were cancelled for 1 month.
If you were late for breakfast your late pass would be cancelled.
Ice skating at St Moritz in St Kilda was a popular thing to do on a late pass and one that Mum and Dad enjoyed doing during their courting days.
The nurses rate of pay during their training:
1st year nurses 5 shillings per week
2nd year nurses 10 shillings per week
3rd year nurses 15 shillings per week
Mum’s experience in the ‘Diet kitchen’ (1 July 1940-30 Sept 1940)
Prior to Mum’s nursing training she was already a proficient cook: helping out on the farm as she grew up and then cooking for the guests at her aunties’ hotel, the Royal Hotel in Sunbury, on the cook’s ‘day off’.
Mum’s nursing notebook became the family recipe book. Mum wrote up her favourites on the blank pages and added cuttings from magazines and newspapers of recipes she planned to try.
Below is a tried and true recipe for the family Christmas cake. This recipe became the recipe for my siblings’ wedding cakes. Mum always gave a recipe a gong, such as, ‘my favourite’ or ‘good’ if the recipe lived up to its reputation and her expectations:
The front pages of this tome contain her lecture notes and recipes from the ‘Diet Kitchen’ at St V’s. After having another read of these notes I can see where Mum got her ideas for a nutritious, balanced diet and we certainly benefited from that.
As I grew up, breakfasts were major, often consisting of a chop and tomato, maybe an egg as well, or black pudding and tomato sauce or lamb’s fry and bacon, and this was probably after porridge or cereal. I drew the line at brains though. Mum was a great believer in starting off the day with a full stomach.
I remember Mum telling me about the lucky patients who had relatives/friends who brought them in eggs. The patient’s name was written on the egg, boiled and served only to that patient. Eileen also mentions this in her notes. She says that one of the nurses who considered this unfair arranged for her father to bring in a crate of eggs so none of the patients missed out.
Infectious diseases training at Fairfield Hospital (1 Oct 1941-31 Dec 1941)
This was early vaccination days and pre antibiotics.
Eileen states there were 5 diphtheria wards, 3 scarlet fever wards and a ‘lot of polio’ with 3 rooms of iron lungs at Fairfield Hospital.
Eileen’s experience on the wards:
In this Diptheria ward I cared for 22 children under four years of age from 7pm to 7am. You were on your own with an occasional visit from the night superintendent … On another night duty stint, Carmel Daniels and I nursed 22 airforce men with meningitis. It was a “nightmare”!
Treatment for Diptheria:
In the days before antibiotics, a child with scarlet fever had a towel wrapped around him to keep his arms down. A makintosh and towels placed in position and the throat was douched with warm, salty water two hourly by placing a nozzle in the mouth. Pressure was gained by tubing being attached to can on high pole. After a couple of days the throat was douched 4 hourly….most of them went home in three weeks.
Even the nurses had to gargle salty water at the end of their shift and then 2 hours later. No wonder Mum was keen on this treatment for us.
Another photo of Mum at Fairfield Hospital with some of her charges:
Mum gets married
As I mentioned earlier, Mum hadn’t completed her training when she walked out the door on 1 December 1942.
Her handsome beau, Jack Coghlan had returned from nearly 18 months service in the Pacific and there was talk he might be sent back overseas.
I’m not sure when the proposal of marriage happened, before or after his stint overseas, but Mum told me she wore her engagement ring on a chain around her neck, out of sight of the nuns.
Wedding preparations were hastily put together. Mum wore her sister, Joyce’s wedding dress and, Nance, Dad’s sister and bridesmaid wore the dress Mum wore as a bridesmaid to Joyce’s wedding. It was war-time and everything was shared around.
The best man was a sad affair. Mum and Dad had written to Dad’s second cousin, David Lee, a fellow RAAF man, asking him to do the honours. Unfortunately, he could not attend due to training. Dad asked one his RAAF mates to step in instead. David died in a bombing raid over Solingen, Germany in November 1944. I’ve blogged about his sad demise in An Officer and a Gentleman.
The marriage took place on 16 January 1943 at Sacred Heart Church, St Kilda. After the ceremony, Mum gave her wedding bouquet/sheath of water lilies and gladioli to her fellow nursing trainees to be placed on the altar in the chapel at St Vincent’s Hospital. A wedding ‘breakfast’ followed at Scott’s Hotel. Melbourne.
Eileen Cattanach finished her training and graduated on 20 March 1943.
A search through death notices in the newspapers revealed that Eileen had only died in August of this year. She was 102.
A trip to the cemetery
Today, my sister and I visited Mum and Dad’s grave in Templestowe Cemetery. We placed some home-grown flowers there: the rose, originally a cutting from my Uncle Leo, a great gardener, and the pelargonium, originally pinched by Mum from a neighbour’s garden. Both, significant symbols of Mum’s nurturing talents. Rest in peace.
Thanks to Barbara Cytowicz in St Vincent’s Archives for being so obliging and for supplying me with the records. And thanks to Eileen Vaughan for documenting her memories of training as a nurse at St Vincent’s Hospital, Melbourne.
And … Happy 2nd Birthday to my blog!