Maleny nurse takes on the world

Dec 22, 2018 | Features

Turning a nursing career into a lifelong adventure came naturally to Maleny’s Helen Walker as she helped those in need in myriad locations, some of which were exotic, remote or even dangerous.

by Judy Fredriksen

Calming a wounded, wild-eyed and cussing Indigenous man at a remote clinic was all in a day’s work for Helen Walker, Rural and Isolated Practice Endorsed Registered Nurse (RIPEN).

In most cases, the autonomy of Helen’s job means there is no doctor physically present, though a doctor is only a phone call away. In this confronting case, Helen was able to draw on her RIPEN training to settle the patient and successfully treat him.

Helen’s enthusiasm for the humanities, forged from a lifetime of helping those in need of medical care, is unmistakable. It punctuates her cheerful manner: “I get satisfaction by helping people help themselves.”

Back in the 1970s, while women in Australia were still warming their vocal cords to demand equal rights, Helen was already off following her heart and embarking on a career in nursing. 40 years later from her base in Maleny, it is a career that still nourishes her.  

At a time when a woman’s occupation was expected to play second fiddle to her husband’s profession, Helen instinctively mastered her own destiny, seizing opportunities at each new exotic location as she moved around the world.

Helen completed her basic nurse training at St Helens Methodist Hospital in Brisbane, the forerunner to the Wesley Hospital. “The training was very thorough; we learnt to do things properly.”

From there, Helen’s first posting was Townsville where she discovered her interest in eye health. “I just loved the eyes,” she says, her eyes shining, and for a time, she made eye health the focus of her career.

Midwifery, a craft she still practises, was another skill she gained.

Then upon moving to London, Helen was fortunate to be accepted for specialised training at Moorfields Eye Hospital, central London. It was the oldest and largest centre for ophthalmic treatment, teaching and research in Europe. Here, she earned the Moorfields Medal, a reward acknowledging she had completed her nursing diploma.

“Back then you could wear that anywhere (in the world) with pride because you were an ophthalmic nurse from Moorfields.”  

Kingston, Jamaica, where she worked in the Ophthalmic Unit of the University Hospital of the West Indies for two years, was the next part of Helen’s adventure. “It was very interesting,” she says, “all the eye cases came to us.

“You would take an esky and go to meet the plane to actually get the eye that came from America to go and do the corneal graft for a patient.” The eye would have come from a donor and the healthy cornea would be sewn onto the patient who needed it.

The next stamp in her passport came from Israel, where she briefly worked on a Kibbutz as a volunteer nurse. Jobs in the Kibbutz varied, and life generally revolved around a wire factory and raising chickens.

Helen was only there for a short time, but recalls the frequent use of chamomile tea to treat ailments. “A lot of chamomile flowers were being put out for infusion,” she laughs, “but I had no idea why! I was young and inexperienced.”  

Helen finally returned to Australia, briefly visiting Maleny in the early 1980s and settling here permanently in 1989. She took some time out to have a family and in between, still found time to work as a Blue Nurse.

Then in 2004, Helen lucked across a unique opportunity  – to serve on the Mercy Ship, working out of Benin, between Togo and Nigeria, on the west coast of Africa. “The region is home to Voodoo and it was rumoured there were many Shamans about.”

With only one other eye nurse to help her, Helen would have 5,000 patients lined up seeking assistance, many needing cataract surgery. They would have travelled for days to get there and some of them would have corneas scarred so badly, there was little the staff of the Mercy Ship could do to help.

As the Mercy Ship was run by a Christian organisation, those who were rejected for surgery could be comforted in a prayer station. “This often ameliorated the sense of rejection in the patients.”

Since 2004, Helen has been working as a relief nurse in rural hospitals, Cape York, remote communities and islands in the Torres Strait, as well as Cocos Keeling Islands in the Indian Ocean.

Type 2 Diabetes and obesity are the more common health issues in these locations, so Helen takes pride in working with her patients to “enthuse them to own their own health.”

To do this, you need to “listen, respect them and educate them,” says Helen.

“Island communities live off the sea and some grow their own fruit and veggies. But for others, it’s much easier to go to the general store and buy tinned food. Sometimes the fresh food that arrives on the barge is not of good quality.”

Helen engages her patients in the decision-making for the management of their condition and ownership of care.

“When a patient has his point of view listened to and respected, he feels valued and so can confidently proceed towards a path of wellness. When his health has improved, he is a role model for his community; the ripples in a pond extend outwards.

“Remote area patients are usually motivated to see their grandchildren grow up, and that inspires them to want to get well,” she says, sharing her trademark smile.

Although Helen loves being involved in the Maleny community where she sings in a choir, her thirst for adventure and travel has never waned. Before her next relief posting to a remote settlement, she’s jaunting off to Sri Lanka for a holiday and looking forward to learning all about yet another colourful culture.  




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