Doreen Balfour

Doreen Balfour (née Hartnett) was born in Pingelly, Western Australia on 2 October 1920. She grew up in Western Australia and began her career as a nurse at Prince Henry Hospital, Little Bay during World War II. This is the story of her nursing experiences at Prince Henry:

When Doreen was 19, she was a patient in hospital and decided to become a nurse herself.

“I applied to start training at Prince Henry at Little Bay. My sisters and I left Perth and travelled over on the ship Wonganella to Melbourne and eventually to Sydney. I wrote to the Matron and after some time received an interview to bring my medical fitness certificate from my local doctor on an approved date and an interview with Matron. Matron queried my size and weight and strength to carry me through my training. I was allowed to start at the Preliminary Training School in 1941 with a class of 22 girls. Several of these girls dropped out through ill health or family problems. World War II was already calling out to a lot of young men and a friend of mine enlisted in the 6th Division of Army recruits and set sail for the Middle East, among them my future husband. Rigid discipline was the rule under which we trained. We obeyed instantly all demands during our work. Our shifts were 11 hours day of broken shifts. The nurses’ home was a good brisk 8-10 minutes walk from the wards. We had half an hour meal break and must be back on duty on time. In the infectious diseases ward, we were changed into pink uniforms when on duty. So much precious time was wasted in changing uniforms. Meals at midday were good, but very sparse, only salad for tea. We often went to bed hungry. In the PTS training school we were taught the rudimentary rules of how to sponge a patient or use a bed pan while the patient was still in bed – also to change the bed linen. I found when in the wards it was very hard for me to hold a patient’s buttocks elevated while senior staff members attended to back care. Heel care too, woe betide the nurse if the a patient developed a bed sore of any kind. The work was hard but never monotonous as I discovered when I rolled a patient over to rub his back with metho, I discovered a tattoo on his entire bottom of a dog chasing a rabbit, diving for its burrow in his anus! 

“We served terms in each ward, medical or surgical or recovery. There were few medical orderlies so we never had to catheterise a male patient. We also served a term in the operating theatre. Junior nurses brought the patient into the theatre and placed them in the annexe ready for the anaesthetist and then took them into the theatre and positioned them correctly for surgery. In my first year I was unconscious on the floor, before the patient. I always passed out before the patient was anaesthetised because I couldn’t stand the smell of it. So staff soon took over, sent me back to ward, and every time I went over there they’d send me back again without letting me do anything because they didn’t want to handle me unconscious again. I was always on the floor. I used to pass out easily. 

“We had Manpower during the war and you could not leave any job without the permission of Manpower. So I went into the Manpower board and reported to them that I had great difficulty staying on my feet, that I passed out far too often and I felt I was a trouble to the nurses on duty and that they had to carry me when I was not able to continue for myself. The matron there asked me to wait a little while and she phoned my own matron. She turned to me and said “You go back to the hospital because Matron assures me you’re going to make a very good nurse. So you go back and you go back now. You will not be relieved so you can’t work anywhere else. You have to go back.” I went down Martin Place crying my eyes out. But I still had to go back. 

“One unfortunate time we were on night duty and my friend and I, were coming back to the hospital from Greenwich where she lived so it was a long time on the tram and in the blackout, we ran over somebody who was lying on the tram line and we all had to get off the tram while they removed the body from under the tram line and the legs were on the side where I was and I took one look at these white legs and passed out there and then on the ground. 

“On another occasion I was waiting in town for my two brothers – this is nothing to do with nursing. I was waiting in the city for my two brothers who were in the navy and they were to meet me at 7 o’clock in the city. And they didn’t come, they didn’t show up on time, so I walked down to the next corner, thinking they might have done that, and they weren’t there, so I turned and walked back, and this person coming towards me said “Get out of my beat, sis. This is my place.” She was a prostitute. For our final exams, we had to go into the city and out to Prince Alfred Hospital – we had to go there for our examinations. The Matron was interviewing people quite close to me and this doctor was asking me about haemorrhaging – what you do when a patient haemorrhages? And of course nurses are taught, the only time you run is if a patient haemorrhages. And I thought about all the reasons, and this was during the exam and I said all the things I could think about that the patient would bleed. And he said you have left out – there is another reason and can you tell me what it is. And I remembered them saying about, now there was a name you call it. Menorrhagia. The doctor said to me “You are the first person today that’s remembered that. I have asked every nurse who comes through here and nobody has remembered it.” But I remembered it, because of my own problem.

“Our uniform was ten inches from the floor, long sleeves, starched collars and cuffs. When you were on duty, you took off your cuffs and you left your collar on. You took off the cuffs and you put them inside the bib of your apron. You wore a wide apron over the top and you put them in there and you immediately replaced them, as soon as you’d finished doing what you were doing. On duty you could roll your sleeves up when you were working in the ward but then in between times, you had to have your sleeves correctly down.

“In the infectious diseases ward, we wore pink uniforms. We had two blocks of infectious diseases and it was the only hospital in Sydney at the time that took infectious diseases so we had people with everything under the sun, especially servicemen would come in. They were men from the country who hadn’t gone through chicken pox and measles and mumps and all of those things. So they were all nursed in the old wards which were called the original part of the hospital but they were called the “bush wards” because they were sort of isolated from the rest of the hospital. But we also had a Lazereta Leper Colony at the back of the grounds and they used to come up to our hospital to see the dentists and things like that. We had to be there to help when they came up so we were scared stiff of getting leprosy but we were told that it wouldn’t pass to us that way. You didn’t get leprosy through attending to a person. In your first year you had a cap with one bite out of the middle of the cap for first year, two bites for second year, three bites for third year. I had very curly hair. It was very hard to keep it under the cap.

“Our uniform in the infectious diseases ward was pink because it had to be entirely different to anybody else and everybody knew that when you were in a pink uniform. It also saved us any worry about carrying infection from that ward to the rest of the hospital. That’s why we had to change and you had half an hour for lunch and you had to change out of your pink uniform, wash your hands in Dettol, and change into your own uniform, go for your life across to the dining room which might be 10 minutes walk, hurrying like mad and back again, and out and into your pink uniform all in half an hour.

“All our uniforms were laundered. Everything was sent to the laundry. We didn’t do any of that kind of washing, only our personal clothes. And we had a laundry there in our own quarters but we had very little space for drying things and we learned to buy ourselves little clothes horses and put them on those outside our bedrooms. They weren’t allowed, and of course, many a time we got into trouble for that.

“There was no distinction from one nurse to another – only the sisters and the sisters made sure that the nurses knew their place. You dare not say “No” to a sister. If she said – do something, you did it now, on the spot with no questions. 

“When a patient died, we had to put him on a stretcher and march down the drive with them to the mortuary. We had to take them down there. One night I was hurrying down and the patient almost fell of the trolley. But I had a wardsman with me and he helped me pull the patient back on again. We had a lot of fun there. It was hard work.

“The Matron Dixon Home was the one we lived in and it was on the rocks side there. You had a room to yourself wherever you went but the rooms were very small but they were comfortable. You shared a bathroom and toilet at the end of the corridor and a couple of the nurses used to drop their clothes and take their clean undies and head for the bathroom naked, have their shower, put their clean underwear on and walk back to their rooms with nothing else on, just their panties. So we all got to be very broad minded.

“You had to be on duty by 6.00 am. So you got up at 5 o’clock and you raced like mad to the ward, already in your uniform, dare not be one minute late to report for duty at 6 o’clock, so 5 o’clock was told to wake up, have a shower, get yourself dressed and over the ward – no breakfast, no nothing before you went. Had to go quickly, unless you got up early enough and then you would have breakfast otherwise you went without. Breakfast was provided – porridge, always porridge, porridge and toast. That was about it, don’t think we had anything else. We all had to give in our food coupons to the Matron. You couldn’t keep any of them, even if you didn’t eat butter or whatever, you still had to give all your coupons in.

“Sister Hand was the home sister and – she was a dear little soul and she used to say “don’t upset Matron, don’t upset this one, don’t upset that one”. She’d be very very prompt. She’d say “So and so’s in a bad mood today, you’d better be careful.” She used to worry about us. She’d hold our mail and my husband was then in the first lot of troops that went overseas and she used to collect his mail and he’d send me a card with his regimental address on one side and a little message to me on one side and on the other side, it had the name and address of the hospital and she’d read all the mail and she’d read my mail and she’d say “Nurse, I don’t think you’re writing often enough to that man, he’s very lonely.” So I sent him Red Cross parcels and much as we didn’t have any money, I managed through the Red Cross to send him Red Cross parcels of food and cigarettes because cigarettes could be traded for food. But they were starving, they were eating grass. He was a prisoner of war in Poland and he suffered very greatly.

“Anyway, back to the wards. We were trained in Prince Henry in the training school and as soon as we went to the wards, we were allocated which ward we go to and every morning before you went on duty, you went into the dining room to have breakfast and you checked with the report that was up on the wall for which ward you were allocated to for the day, and you’d go there like mad, like a bat out of hell, make sure you’re there on time. If you were one minute late, you got very severely reprimanded and you got all the “dirty” duties for the day. Not that you didn’t have them – cause you did, you had to wash out all this filthy bed linen, wash it all out first and tie it up in a sheet and drop it over the railing, so that the laundry below could collect the washing and do it. It was very heavy work whether you were only a little person like me or not. You did your share and you got it over there even if you had to use your knee to help them get it up over the rail.

“You often did it into your second year, but gradually during the second year you got to do a little bit more and you did advance slightly but you often found that you were doing things the same that you did in your first but you begrudged everything what you had to do because you felt you were a little bit more important than that, you should be given better duties to do. So we begrudged doing them but you had to do them just the same.

“When I was there, the matron was Matron McNevin. She was a West Australian and she had a soft spot for me because she’d always say to me “Good morning, nurse. How’s everybody in the West? How’s your family.” My family were all living on a farm. And she’d say “It’s very difficult times for them over there. Does it worry you?” And I’d say “Yes, Matron, it does.” Whether it did or not it didn’t matter, you’d say “Yes Matron.” But Matron had a little black dog called Blucher and we always watched for where Blucher was because up and down between wards, there was streets between the wards and if you saw the dog coming along, you knew Matron was on her way so you made sure cap, gloves and everything were right. Made sure everything was exactly right before dare set eyes on Matron. And if she caught you doing something – when we had a lot of servicemen there. One morning they had some out on the veranda and as I was walking, this man called out to me and I walked over to see what he wanted and Matron was coming past and she said “Nurse, what are you doing there?” When I came over and told her what had happened she said “You must not leave this street when you are walking between the ward and the nursing home. Unless there was a fire, there’s no reason why you must leave the path.” That’s how strict they were. You could do nothing but just as exactly like regimented little soldiers, like little tin soldiers going up and down doing just exactly what you had to do.

“Servicemen were coming back from the war, coming home from the East and Malaysia, and when they’d arrive it would often be well after 10 o’clock at night when there’d only be one night nurse on and they’d have arms, all their guns and ammunition and everything with them and these had to be listed. So often some of us were called back on to the wards to help even though we might have been in bed, you had to get into uniform and come back and help because if a truckload of servicemen came, how could one night nurse deal with all these guns and things because they had to be taken from the men before they got near the wards just in case anyone was trigger happy. So you had to make sure that you put their name and service number on their guns or whatever ammunition or whatever they had and they all had to be locked up in this special room while the men were in residence in the hospital. And if anyone lost anything, your name came up – where is so and so. I never was caught in that way but some of the others were at various times. But whatever it was, it was always found because who would want to cart ammunition around.

“The servicemen came mostly for infectious diseases and occasionally but not very often you got men with other complaints that they had developed in their training time before they went overseas. Like when the Japanese submarine came into Sydney Harbour and the American ship the Chicago was in port and they fired at the Japanese submarines and they sank the naval Kuttabul which was the residence of the navy and a lot of men were injured then by the men trying hard to shoot down the Japanese subs, but the men on the Kuttabul – the Kuttabul was sunk and a lot of those men were injured in the water and they came out with hypothermia and all that kind of thing because they were in the water for so long before they were rescued. We took people from everywhere.

“My favourite ward was men’s surgical. Males seemed to always try to brighten up each day and always tried to help us where they could. Men’s surgical ward I found most interesting because that was my first male ward that I went into and in your training school you are taught that when you’re taking urinals into the ward, each one must be covered, you can’t carry them in uncovered. So poor little me, my first ward, first time in a men’s ward I marched in with all of these urinals all covered with little things and the men roared out laughing and said “Nurse, drop the camouflage.” So I dropped all the covers, marched around with urinals, found it much more interesting, much easier to do. Till Matron came round then you made sure you had your camouflage.

“Ward 23 when I first went there was men recovering, anyone recovering from surgery but later it was turned into men with chicken pox and that kind of thing. If they couldn’t fit them up into the main building, because up there they had diphtheria and tetanus, some tetanus and meningitis. They all went into the infectious wards. But in the main wards was where the most interesting nursing was but the sister up there in the infectious diseases ward took a great fancy to me and she allowed me much more freedom as I said than she allowed my friend. Helen and I both started on the same day and we didn’t know each other at all before we went nursing and we weren’t even friendly when we were in the training school but we found ourselves in the same ward and you had to tend to patients in the ward – that was the infectious patients. But Ward 23 was not in the infectious part because we didn’t want those people with diphtheria and tetanus and whooping cough. 

“Ward 23 was – at various times there were different things in there and one of them was one time, all children. All these little kids were in with chicken pox and what not and I had little ones sitting on potties and all that kind of thing and Matron came in and she said – she saw all these kids there and she heard me talking to them, I was telling them stories – I used to make up stories and the story went on forever – just one of those that you added to and added to, little kids didn’t know anyhow. So I was talking to the kids and she said “Nurse, what ward am I in?” “Ward 23, Matron.” “And what are you doing with the children? What are you talking about?” I said “I’m telling them stories, Matron, so they’re quiet while I get my work done. If they’re crying I’ve got to go over and comfort them. If they’re quiet, I can get on with my work.” “Oh, she said “you’re doing a very good job nurse – keep on.” So that was the sort of thing. 

“They were very very rigid, a case of peer pressure. The senior sisters would say “Jump” and you jumped, well and truly. As we advanced to 2nd year and were up near the third year, you could throw your authority around a little bit too, if you were that way inclined. But I remember being in the diabetic ward and I loved being in there because I had the privilege of making sure that each one had their own special amount of food, exactly what they wanted. To me that was privilege, to be able to look after these people that depended on you doing the right thing. I loved nursing – it was the happiest time of my life. No matter how hard I worked, I still loved it. I nursed right up till I was 63. I loved every minute of it.

“If there were shortages during the war, I wasn’t aware of it. A lot of times during the war, half of the hospital was closed down and in the time it was closed down, we had nothing to do. We sat in a closed ward. We sat there and rolled bandages and made cotton wool swabs and that kind of thing. And that was for about three months, that was all. Then the other servicemen started coming in so the wards were open again and we were flat out, doing our general nursing.

“During the 1940s Poliomyelitis was a serious problem. We had eight iron lungs. We had patients in all of them. You had to be ever so careful. There was an opening in the side where you could put your hands in and change the bed linen and change whatever you needed to do for the patient and make sure they were comfortable but make sure that you didn’t handle them or turn them. You couldn’t turn anyone over when they were in an iron lung. You had to lift them up to do anything at all. And a lot of them were nursed with nothing on, just a sheet over them. Because you know, it was too difficult to try and dress them. We had two girls there, they were in the iron lung for 12 months. One of them went home but the other one died. They taught them how to breathe like a frog when they came out. They learned how to gasp to get enough air in. It was very difficult to teach them how to do it because we ourselves hardly knew how to do it. We had to try very hard. It was sort of nerve wracking as well, because you felt if you let them down, they’d die – and you didn’t want anyone to die.

“One girl was only 15. If they had their period while they were there, it was up to you to look after them, just the same. It was very hard work with the iron lungs. Their head was the only thing that was out and they couldn’t really turn their head from side to side. You sort of talked to them about what you were doing and whatever happy things that had happened. Say how on your days off you went into town. 

“We never had any money. I remember Helen and I going in one day and we had sixpence between us, sixpence each and we could get a bun, not a donut, donuts weren’t around in those days. You could get a dry bun with no butter on and a cup of coffee or cup of tea for four pence and we were left with two pence and that was the whole money we had in our pockets. We’d go around from David Jones, other shops, try on hats, try on dresses, try on clothing, have a great old time, try on shoes. Never bought anything because we didn’t have any money.

“We saw lots of American servicemen in Sydney during the War. You couldn’t walk anywhere for the Americans. When we were coming off duty one time, Helen and I were going down to Wynyard Station to catch the train to go home to her mother’s place and this day we were walking and this American tried to get us to go with him and he said “I can get you silk stockings.” He said “If you’ll come to a dance with me.” We said we were too damned tired to dance. But on our days off, if they wanted to take us to a dance, we would go. We would go because we could rest the next day. We had to make the most of whatever time we had, but that’s when we danced with the Americans. 

“I graduated in 1945 with my friend Helen. [Page 514 of Nurses at Little Bay]. This is all my class, we all graduated in the same year and Barbara Knight was with us, Muriel Hocking, yes she was one of our friends. My name’s here somewhere, Doreen Maisie Hartnett and Helen Constance Merlin, and we are still friends.

“The best thing about nursing was the joy of seeing the happiness and ease on a patient’s face. Nursing’s all about caring, loving and letting the patient know that they are the first thing in your mind to get them better so the first thing the patient wanted to know was that you were there for them. As far as they were concerned, they didn’t care what happened to the person next door. To me nursing is an extension of life, an extension of your ability to help and comfort other people.” 

Doreen Balfour finished her nursing career as Matron at the Garden Settlement Nursing Home at Chermside, retiring at 63.

(Doreen Balfour was interviewed in March 2005).
Doreen Balfour died in March 2011.