Date - 1 July 2022
Helen’s career in nursing was born out of her keen sense of adventure.
From her first job working with her dad who was a sales representative, Helen moved to a hairdressing salon and then left school to work in a bank, and later for the government in the British equivalent of Centrelink for a couple of years.
Helen remembers one day sitting in the office looking around at the older women who had worked there for a long time and thought to herself ‘this isn’t what I want to be forever’.
So, she applied to do nursing.
With the travel bug in her system, she later discovered that gaining another certificate on top of nursing would open the doors to the world.
She worked for 6 months as a nurse before she began midwifery in 1984.
Although Helen said her first taste of midwifery was not the sweetest.
“The funny thing was when I was a nursing student, we went to a maternity unit… and I hated it!” Helen said.
“I hated it because there were ten of us students and somebody would be giving birth and they used to line the ten of us along the back wall to observe. And I just thought that was so wrong. It was the only time I ever took a sickie in my training and I just thought I can’t do one more day of this.”
This first experience with midwifery would shape her practice throughout her career as a midwife and an educator. Helen said she became “fiercely protective” of the birthing room. If somebody didn’t need to be there or didn’t have permission, they were out, or weren’t even allowed in.
“You didn’t get into my room because I would hear the door opening and I would go over to see who was coming,” Helen said.
“I would say ‘Who are you?’ and she would say ‘I’m her mother-in-law’ and I would say ‘Ok just give me a couple of minutes’ and I would close the door and go back to my woman and I’d say, ‘That was your mother-in-law and she would say ‘Don’t let her in here!’”
“You have to protect the space.
“I remember one girl trying to breastfeed and there were family in the room, and she was all tense.
“Suddenly it’s just supposed to be comfortable to flip your breast out to feed your baby when you have never done that in front of these people before.
“She couldn’t do it, so I asked them all to leave.
“I said ‘I think we need one-on-one time here, just go for a cup of coffee. And as soon as they went away, she sighed ‘Oh thank you so much’.
“I said ‘You know what, I don’t have to live with these people, I will never see them again when you go home. So, if I have to be the baddy, then you just tell me’.”
In 1986, Helen made the life-altering decision to pack her bags and move by herself to Perth, Western Australia, having never been before. Her housemate had been nursing in Australia and had told Helen how highly regarded Scottish midwifery was.
She found a job right away and then worked in a few different hospitals, including a two-year stint in neonatal intensive care. During this time, she met her husband Ian, married and they had two sons together, Andrew and Fraser.
When asked what it was like to be on the other side of things having a baby as a midwife, Helen said, “It was every bit as bad as I thought it would be… The pain of course.”
“I didn’t really intend to try everything so that I had experience for my women, but Andrew went into labour spontaneously, I had morphine for pain relief, and I had an episiotomy. Then for Fraser, I was induced, I had a caesarean section with an epidural and had a huge baby. So, I tried a bit of everything,” she said as she ticked in the air.
“Someone said ‘Do you think it will make you a better midwife now having had a baby of your own and I said, ‘I thought I was a pretty good midwife before.”
In May 1995, her husband Ian was offered a job in Melbourne. There she worked in private practice midwifery and as an on-call midwife. She would receive a call in the middle of the night that a woman was in labour, and she would go in to look after them.
In August 1996, Helen and the boys moved to San Francisco with her husband’s mining career. They lived there for two years. She went through the process of sitting her basic exam and obtaining her license but before it could come through, they moved again to Yellowknife in the Northwest Territories of Canada where she would reach the pinnacle of her clinical career.
Helen jokes that she has become a nurse many times over.
“Between Australia and Canada, I had to sit my basic exam once in San Francisco and again in Canada, so I’ve actually passed my exam three times!” she said.
Being a rural town, Yellowknife provided endless opportunities. It was a three-hour medi-flight from the nearest tertiary health centre. Working in this rural environment gave her an incredible amount of autonomy and experience, which has made her passionate about her current position at SQRH, encouraging students to gain rural experience.
60% of the population in Yellowknife was Indigenous. Helen said the women would gather around the woman in labour and it often seemed like the whole village would be in the room.
“The Inuit ladies are very stoic… They would be in labour, but you wouldn’t hear anything. And the only reason you knew they were about to give birth is their upper lip would break out in a sweat,” she said.
After 18 months in Yellowknife, she was made the Clinical Lead for the maternity unit.
Helen said it’s difficult to name a career highlight as there have been so many.
“But Yellowknife was the pinnacle of my clinical career. I was the clinical lead for the unit, I was running the perinatal program and I got my private licence. So that was ‘tick, tick, tick’,” she said.
“We worked as a team, and it was so cohesive. The obstetrician, GP and the nurses – it was an excellent model.”
When asked about her most memorable births, Helen said any births where she knew the women were very special to her to be there for them.
She assisted in the birth of her nephew and two nieces in Perth.
In Yellowknife, she used to look after her husband’s colleagues’ wives.
She recalled a time her husband’s friend’s wife was in the unit.
“Her epidural slipped, and she had an epidural headache, so she had to lie flat for a few days” Helen said.
“When I went in to see her, I was going to give her a hug and she said ‘Oh don’t give me a hug, I haven’t even brushed my hair in three days’.
“So, I said ‘Right, I’ll look after you today’. We got the bed bath, and her husband brushed all her hair out and we got her breasts pumped, and then forevermore after that, every time she saw me, she would call me her lifesaver,” Helen smiled.
After 8 years in Canada, Helen’s husband was relocated to Brisbane, Australia in 2005, where she worked in a couple of hospitals before taking a position at TAFE teaching the Enrolled Nurse program, all while finishing her Masters.
In 2008, The University of Queensland put out an advertisement looking for an educator to teach the new dual degree program. She applied and got the job and has been with the university in some capacity ever since.
Teaching gave Helen an opportunity to work closely with young students and to pass her wisdom and experience onto them. She became close with so many of her students saying they were like family.
“I don’t know how many graduation photos I am in,” she said.
She knew the importance of being a good mentor and loved to celebrate with the students when they experienced their first birth.
Helen said that first year students are in the program for only four weeks when they do two days out in the wards, and she remembered one student who was assigned to the birth suite for her very first shift.
“I mean really by that point, she knew how to wash her hands properly; she understood infection control; she understood how to do laundry, about communication and that kind of thing, but nothing much more,” Helen said.
“She had come out for lunch and she saw me in the corridor. She came running and jumped right into my arms to tell me ‘I just saw my first baby being born!’”
Helen clearly remembers her own first birth, a little girl named Debra who would now be 38.
“The reason I remember it is because in those days when we were learning, your supervisor did births with you and her hands were on your hands to guide you for pressure… and that was the first birth she let me do myself. Under her supervision, but it was my hands this time, not hers,” Helen said.
Helen continued to return to complete 6 week contracts every year to maintain her clinical skills and noticed that it started to be her sons’ friends’ having babies.
“Instead of it being the guys that my husband worked with in the mines and their wives I was looking after, suddenly it was my son’s mates and their partners that I was looking after. It was a bit of a generational shift,” Helen said.
She completed her last contract in Yellowknife in 2015.
She continued working for UQ in a clinical supervisor role in hospitals and then in 2018, she landed a position with Southern Queensland Rural Health as it was first establishing. After enjoying her rural experience in Yellowknife so much, it felt like the right fit to be in a role where she would place students into rural areas. Helen said the people and the social aspect of SQRH has been a highlight of her education career.
With over 500 births under her belt, and even one signed as a Socceroo, she certainly has passed on a lot of knowledge and been a guiding hand to countless students.
“One of the girls that I worked with in Perth contacted me one day to say, ‘If you’re looking for fifteen minutes of fame Helen, all over the case notes is your name, you delivered this baby’,” Helen said.
“’I’m just letting you know he’s just been signed as a Socceroo.’
“So one of my babies has been a Socceroo.”
Another one of her favourite teaching moments was a study group of Australian girls who she was teaching new terms to. The students realised later they had been saying the words in a Scottish accent because the first and only time they had heard them were from Helen.
Her impact certainly is felt far and wide. Whether it be the babies she’s delivered, the Mums she has nurtured, the students she has taught or the colleagues she has worked alongside, she has touched many people with her infectious smile and Scottish charm.
Her legacy will especially be remembered through her Immersive Virtual Reality project.
Helen said the program was designed to teach registered nurses who have never done midwifery, and work in a rural situation, how to cope when a woman walks in the door and she is about to have her baby.
“There is a current program but working rurally means you can’t get to the workshop to practise on the model, so we have put a scenario on the headset in immersive virtual reality.
“We will be presenting at the National Rural Health Conference in August, which will be my last hurrah. Then hopefully it will be published and the team will be applying for grants to take it further.
“It’s nice to go out on something that’s quite forward thinking.
Helen’s passion for midwifery is so evident in the way she speaks about her career, the babies she’s assisted to be born and the students she has taught, it’s hard to imagine her stepping back into a retirement, albeit a very well-deserved retirement.
Helen said she was planning to visit Tasmania in August, Singapore in September and Scotland in October. But unfortunately, her husband has had surgery scheduled so they had to cancel.
“So now I might find it a bit more tricky. I thought, ‘It will be January before I realise I’ve given up work’ but now I will be around the house a bit more,” she said.
“I know I’m going to miss things. I’ll just hear a story if I’m talking to somebody from SQRH… I know I’ll have the pangs of ‘Oh I would have liked to have done that’.”
Somebody asked what her retirement project is going to be, and she replied, “I think the project is going to be me”.
“You know the things you don’t do when you’re working all the time, you don’t go to the gym enough. I go to pilates once a week, maybe I can do more. Maybe I can do gym more often, play golf more often. Things for me. And then travel with Ian once he’s fit,” she said.
With Fraser working as a physiotherapist in Tasmania and Andrew living in Yellowknife where he owns a radio station, she will have plenty of travel on the cards.
When the final interview question was asked after having chatted for nearly an hour (and could have easily gone longer), Helen became teary as she pondered, ‘What do you want to be remembered for?’ and then answered, “my passion for midwifery”.
“My girls used to write that in my cards. ‘We love your passion’,” she said.
One group of students signed their card, ‘your GIRILS’ as that’s how Helen would refer to them in her Scottish accent.
So, Helen, from all the guys and girils at SQRH, we wish you all the best in your retirement and thank you for the passion you brought to our organisation. That’s certainly what you will be remembered for here.