When Marilyn Wales walked into Temora District Hospital in 1970 she was as wide-eyed and fresh-faced as any aspiring nurse could be.
She was just 16 years old – too young for formal training. But she would start on the wards as a cadet nurse.
The investment in her training has paid off. Not only did Marilyn put in 25 good years in Temora, but when she returned to her hometown of Harden-Murrumburrah with her family, she added another 25 years to the tally.
Marilyn is a registered nurse and clinical nurse educator at Murrumburrah-Harden District Hospital (MLHD)– a 33 bed facility with 13 hospital care beds and 20 residential aged care beds.
In her clinical nurse educator role, this golden girl of nursing has the key to a vault of practical knowledge that is fortified by the latest technology and workplace practices.
Never has Marilyn’s work been more important than right now during the COVID-19 pandemic, with the safety of patients, staff and visitors the top priority.
And in a small town where everyone knows everyone, the community depends on it.
“None of our generation have had to deal with a pandemic,” she says. “While we’ve had flu epidemics, the preparation for this pandemic is incredible. It’s almost daunting.
“A lot of my work right now is on preparing and educating staff about COVID-19 and what we can do for the second wave that is possibly going to eventuate.”
This model of care extends from work to home for all 41 nursing and ancillary staff at the hospital.
“It’s also about mental preparedness, not just at work but at home and in the community – how they are coping with everything,” says Marilyn.
“Some staff have small children at home. I have an elderly mother who has been in isolation so how do I manage to keep her well and safe?
“We do talk to staff members, and people stay in touch outside of work to ensure everyone is managing OK. But we’re lucky we are a small hospital in a small town; everyone knows each other and it’s easier to do that here than at a larger facility.”
From safety huddles each day to teleconferences three times a week, Marilyn says the communication and sharing of ideas at MLHD has been outstanding.
“The communication has been continuous and has evolved quickly,” she says. “As a whole, MLHD has dealt with this brilliantly.”
Marilyn’s seat on the front bench of the COVID-19 pandemic – Skyping and teleconferencing with other hospitals across the region – is a far cry from her early days as a nurse when hospital-based training dominated and patients were treated and sent home.
“There’s a huge difference, not only in the technology we use but the knowledge and skills nurses have now,” she says. “Learning came from doctors when I started nursing, but now education through university allows you to understand the science behind nursing and there are a lot of skills we can use before a doctor is even on the site.”
And 16 years ago, university it was for Marilyn who had already managed to juggle marriage, family and her career for 34 years. But re-education opened doors to a world that continues to inspire and thrill her.
“I just keep evolving with nursing,” she says, “It’s such a progressive industry to work in and the technology that’s come into nursing and advancing it now is brilliant.”
Marilyn is close to being an expert on the subject of nursing technology. It’s her job to ensure every staff member is fully conversant with any new practices and equipment that enter the hospital.
“If, for instance, a new model of defibrillator comes out, the manufacturer’s rep comes out to educate staff on the day and I have to make sure we follow on with that education across the site,” she says.
That includes university graduates.
“We have students from universities who do placements during training and we have to teach them to recognise what they need to use, how to set it up and use it,” says Marilyn.
She loves it so much, the grandmother of eight reckons she’s just reaching her peak.
“It’s all coming in at the wrong end of my career,” she laughs.
Alas, at 67, Marilyn is readying for retirement in August as Harden-Murrumburrah welcomes its new purpose-built hospital. Her future is one of caravans and travel.
But she’s happy with the path she’s helped pave.
“I think the most significant change I have seen is the level of engagement with people coming into the hospital,” says Marilyn. “It’s now a very holistic process where we look at their physical, mental and spiritual health, and family and community, not just while they’re in hospital but when they’re discharged, how can we support them to go home and stay well.”
In a year of a global pandemic, Marilyn is well placed to applaud her peers.
“I appreciate everything they are doing to try to keep everyone safe,” she says. “Their skills and knowledge in managing these patients is absolutely incredible and I hope they know that every nurse supports what they are doing.”