Nursing in a by-gone era

Eileen Holden Smith (née Kinsey)

Eileen Kinsey was born at St Peters in 1911. She lived with her family at Punchbowl and as a child she remembered bringing eggs to school to sell to help raise money for the new hospital at Campsie. This became Canterbury Hospital where she did her general training from 1930-1934.

Although they were hard times she loved nursing and her training days and made many lifelong friends. At that time there was no central sterilising department and all the equipment was cleaned and boiled in the ward kitchen. As well as cleaning the entire ward (with the exception of floors) nurses also made all the combine dressings. If patients wanted eggs for breakfast they had to bring their own which the nurses cooked for them. It was compulsory to live in the nurses home and the regulations were very strict. They had to be in by 10.30pm at night and were allowed two late passes until 12 midnight per week. If they wished to go home for days off, they had to ask the matron’s permission.

After completing her training she worked for the very fashionable Miss Toshack’s Nursing Agency. One of her assignments was to work as a relieving community nurse at Timsvale in the hinterland west of Coffs Harbour. Timsvale was a town set up by Beahl’s Pianos for the men who felled the trees to make the piano cases. When she arrived at the railway station late one evening this elegant young lady was met by a huge unshaven man who drove her the 100km along a narrow unsealed winding mountain road in a truck with no doors.

He told Eileen that the vehicle was the school bus, ambulance and the town hearse. She stayed there for several months and loved the warm hospitality offered by those wonderful people. Her last assignment was in 1936 when she went to Wagga Wagga to a special private patient. When there she met a handsome young accountant who worked in the Commonwealth Bank. His name was Athol Holden Smith and 10 days later they married. Athol was soon promoted to bank manager and they lived in Vaucluse, Nowra, Kingsford and then Earlwood after his retirement.

Living in Nowra in the 1950s Eileen used to voluntarily escort seriously ill patients by ambulance to Sydney. It was a nerve wracking four-hour trip as the road was only two lanes wide and there was no hospital to stop at between Wollongong and Sydney if the patient’s condition deteriorated. She longed to get back to nursing but at that time it was not acceptable for married women to work.

Eileen was an active member of the Shoalhaven Hospital Auxilliary worked tirelessly to raise money to build the new hospital.

After retiring from the bank and moving to Earlwood, Athol died in 1970. In 1971 at the age of 60 Eilseen achieved the ambition of returning to nursing and went back on the staff at Canterbury Hospital. It was a tough decision as there were no refresher courses then and there had been many changes. She continued working there until 1975 making many more nursing friends.

She was a foundation member of the Canterbury Hospital Graduate Nurses Association. She used to knit clothes for the premature babies until just before her death when it became too difficult to hold the needles. Another one of her many interests was quilting and she was involved in making the Quilts of Love for the premature babies. Eileen was very proud to be awarded life membership of Canterbury Hospital in recognition of her contribution.

Before her death in November 2004 her health deteriorated quite rapidly but she desperately wanted to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the opening of Canterbury Hospital. Unable to walk she attended the ceremony in a wheelchair and had a wonderful time meeting her old friends. Sadly, several days later she died peacefully in her sleep. Eileen is survived by her three children and seven grand children and great grandchildren.

By Roslyn van der Sandt, RN & Nurse Educator