13 October 1936–8 September 2008
On Monday 8 September 2008, after three days in a coma, Madge Neilson died peacefully at the Sydney Adventist Hospital.
Madge was born in Cessnock, NSW, the daughter of a coal miner. She grew up in Cessnock and Swansea, attending school there and later going to Home Science Girls High in Newcastle. It was in the Hunter, against the background of the Great Depression that Madge’s fierce passion for social justice was born.
Married at 19, Madge had four children within seven years. In the 1970s, by then a sole parent, Madge commenced her nursing training at the Royal Newcastle Hospital. She worked shiftwork, studied, sat exams and then went home to care for her family. This was at a time when many nursing schools forbade nurses getting married and ‘family friendly employment policies’ were unheard of.
In 1986, Madge started work for the NSW Nurses’ Association. It was an ideal job for Madge, allowing her to combine her nursing with her passion for social justice. Her first job as an organiser was to open the Hunter office, and against all odds she made it work. She worked tirelessly for members throughout NSW until her retirement in March 2002.
There are too many wonderful Madge Neilson stories to recount. However, a few come to mind that illustrate Madge’s determination and fearless representation of members.
The first relates to a rural base hospital where an ENT surgeon allegedly sexually abused anaesthetised female patients. OT staff had sounded the alarm bells, but to no avail. They came to Madge who took the matter on. The case, which ultimately went to court, ended years later but Madge supported staff right through the process. Famously, the doctor’s barrister, cross-examining one of the OT staff, demanded to know what ’that lady from the union’ had told him to say. The answer was perfect: ’She told me to tell the truth’.
In December 1994, a newly registered nurse, Sandra Hoare, was murdered while on night duty in an isolated ward of Walgett Hospital. Madge spent months working with nurses at the hospital as they fought to understand how such a tragedy could occur. She sat with them and Sandra’s mother through the court proceedings that followed.
Another piece of life fell into place for Madge at the Association with the arrival of John Taylor (former Senior Industrial Officer), another coal miner’s kid from Cessnock. Madge and John quickly hit it off and they formed a loving partnership that John has described as the happiest years of his life.
They retired from the Association within a month of each other. They already had a home near Campbelltown, but they built a new one at Tallwoods (near Tuncurry). Madge had the kitchen and garden of her dreams and John had his golf and a computer to keep abreast of the latest industrial issues.
In 2007, Madge was diagnosed with gallbladder cancer and told she had three months to live. Typically, she was not going to rollover without a fight, so she endured major surgery, chemotherapy, and radiotherapy. At the end of November last year things looked positive. However, the cancer returned.
To many of us who knew Madge she seemed indestructible. She was a tower of strength who was going to outlive us all – it is still hard to grasp that she has physically gone.
Madge, countless members will remember your work and will be forever grateful for your assistance. Your friends and family and many acquaintances, including some worthy adversaries, will never forget you.
Our hearts go out to John, your children, grandchildren and brother, and all their families at this time of loss.
The world needs more Madge Neilsons.
(Our thanks to Madge’s family for supplying background and some text for this article.)
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