I am Wiradjuri. Born at Narrandera on the banks of the Murrumbidgee River in south-western NSW. My father, Archie George Bamblett and my mother, Eva Lilly Scott were moved on from wherever they tried to settle because no-one wanted ‘blacks’ in their area. I remember as a child living at bottom sandhill in an area between the town rubbish tip and the sewage works.
We moved to Sydney when I was young to a rented terrace in inner Sydney. We were the only Aboriginal family in the area and the only Aboriginal kids at St Peters Public school. I was the youngest of seven children, four boys and three girls. There was much love in our home. Some say I was even very spoilt, by my older siblings and parents. But, we were poor.
At school we were subjected to a lot of racism. Hardly a day went by that the three of us were not in a fight on the way home from school. We stuck together, but still I was bashed. I remember as a five of six year old being absolutely devastated when my tormentors tore a dress my mother had hand-sewn dress for me. I cried for a long time. It was so beautiful, but was beyond repair. I couldn’t understand why they were so mean. After so many fights, we soon learnt to fight back and things did get better.
Like so many Aboriginal children, as a child, I had been hospitalised several times with various problems. I thought nurses were wonderful women and for as long as I can remember, I had wanted to be a nurse. As a child people would ask what I wanted to do when I grew up and ever so confidently I would reply. ‘I’m going to be a nurse’ and politely they would say “That’s nice’. I left school at 14 after achieving my Intermediate Certificate and worked in factories and in a major retail outlet until I was old enough to go nursing. When I was 16 I applied to undertake training and was stunned to hear people, both black and white say that I wouldn’t be able to do it — I was Aboriginal. I also remember boldly responding with ‘of course I will.’ I didn’t believe them and refused to accept it.
At the time I did not understand that in other states and in some places in New South Wales Aboriginal women were excluded from undertaking nursing. It was a decision based on race.
Not put off, I continued striving towards my dream and applied to the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital – our local hospital. I was accepted!
I will never forget the opportunity that Matron, Miss Evelyn Lawrie gave me. I was the first Aboriginal student nurse at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital and as I understand in New South Wales. I was overjoyed. I was going to do something’.
It was overwhelming too for my family. They were so happy and so very proud. Every one of my brothers and sisters rallied around and contributed so that I would have everything just right. They bought my nurse’s watch and shoes (Halls black lace ups) black lisle stockings, my books, scissors, clothes, undies and pyjamas. They made sure I had everything, so that I would be as good as everyone else!
Perhaps one of the biggest days of my life was the 2nd January. It was the day after my 17th birthday. I lined up in a group with 41 other trainee nurses, feeling very strange and alone, standing out like a ‘sore thumb’ I’m sure. The other girls were friendly and probably feeling a lot like I was feeling.
Our tutor sisters gave us an orientation of sorts and we were shown to our cubicles in our new home. It was an old army hut, which surprisingly was quite comfortable. Although we only lived a fairly short distance from the hospital, home seemed a long way away. Trainees were not permitted to live out.
I am sure I stood out. I was very obviously Aboriginal. I was also so happy to be nursing that I didn’t take any notice and I just let any comments that may have been made go over my head. I must say I was treated like one of the girls by the other girls and some have remained friends to this day. During Preliminary Training School (PTS) we learned the basic skills of nursing. Unfortunately, I failed a couple of exams but was able to take a supplementary (post) exam. I studied and worked so hard. I was terrified I would fail again. The shame would have been absolutely intolerable. Many people expected, if not hoped, that I would fail. However, my family didn’t.
I felt under so much pressure. I was considered a ‘Miss Goody Two Shoes’ because I never went out. The desire to succeed was so very strong too because I was the first of my family to have been given the opportunity to do something. I had to walk the extra mile, and that mile was a very fine one.
Only recently, I had opportunity to read my reports from my training days. The Tutor Sister had written on my Preliminary Training School report that “this nurse is totally incapable of learning.” I was absolutely devastated to read this even after all those years. I wept. I wondered how could someone write this. As a nurse educator, I was disgusted, that no assistance was given to a student and that it must have been obvious I was not coping with the academic area, and as an Aboriginal woman I was disgusted that such a broad, sweeping, Darwinian statement was made. After a cry I thought, if you could see me now.
There were also some very wonderful people at the hospital, other tutor sisters, ward sisters, nurses and doctors as well as ancillary staff who treated me so well and with warmth and respect.
It was not all easy. There was a great deal of teeth clenching and many tears were shed over extremely difficult, unreasonable ward sisters and at times difficult and racist patients. I cried many tears in the pan room. It was not such a strange place to find comfort. The pan room provided a great refuge. It was a place where frustrations could be taken out on cleaning bedpans, bottles, bowls and benches. Some nurses and patients were unpleasant, cruel and difficult, but there were many more who were wonderful and supportive.
I suppose like many young people, I didn’t really appreciate the sacrifices that my family had made for me, when I Graduated from General Nurse Training, my mum and dad, sister Patsy and brother Archie attended. It was wonderful, they were all very proud. I had done it! I did not see another Aboriginal nurse in all the time I was at the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital.
I had applied to undertake midwifery at King George V Memorial Hospital. During my final exam and was requested to make a presentation about the placenta. Apparently, I did it so well, it was suggested by the examiner that I consider teaching.
Instead, I became a staff nurse (junior sister) at RPAH. I worked in the operating theatres, then night duty and later gained a staff position (senior sister now) at King George V Memorial Hospital and was promoted to sister in charge of the ward soon after.
George and I were married soon after and moved to Albury.
I later worked at the Mercy hospital in the maternity ward. Years later, it was lovely to be approached by young women who told me her name was on her birth certificate.
I was approached by Dulcie Flower and Fred Hollows, to help set up and run the Aboriginal Medical Service, Redfern and took up the offer and was there at its inception, 1971.
It was my great privilege to work therewith, and for, my people and also to work with Fred and the other doctors who worked there on a voluntary basis after they had finished their working day at their hospitals.
Although I had grown up at St. Peters, gone to school at Newtown and trained at RPAH, Camperdown, George, Cameron and I lived in Erskineville, I was not accepted by some community members. I was told that I was considered ‘flash’. This was very disappointing for me. I remember one day at a clinic, a slightly intoxicated man with a sore ear wanted to see a doctor. I explained that the doctor was not there. He stood back, looked me up and down and said ‘who do you think you are, just because you’re educated.’
I think education was the crux of the matter. Shirley Perry (mum Shirl) a cousin of mine took me under her wing after that and let the community know in no uncertain terms, as only Shirley could, who I was and that they should attend the medical service. I cared mum for several years, when she was ill following a stroke and when mum died, George, Cameron and I moved to Brisbane. After a few years in the clinical setting, I did a Diploma in Nurse Education specialising in Cardio-Thoracic and Coronary Care nursing and later conducted the Post-Basic Cardio Thoracic Nursing Course at the Prince Charles Hospital, Queensland.
I went from Prince Charles Hospital to St Andrews War Memorial Hospital, to conduct the Post Basic Cardio-Thoracic Nursing Course. After three years I was told funding ran out and I was dismissed. I was devastated. I was told to leave that very day.
After months of trying to find employment, I learned that I had been “blacklisted?! I believed I was betrayed by people that I considered friends, students and others, who thought it in their best interests to do so. I was bitter for a while, however, life goes on. I moved on.
With a Bachelor of Applied Science (Nursing) I moved in to the Tertiary Education Sector, to the School of Nursing Queensland University of Technology (QUT. I went on to get a Master of Nursing Studies (Flinders University).
I lectured at QUT for six years. One of the most difficult experiences in that position what that being Aboriginal there was the perception that because you are Aboriginal you would know all there is about Aboriginal people. As Aboriginal people we know that to be wrong.
While at QUT, I organised community visits for students, to increase their awareness of cultural issues, safety and respect through community clinical practicum. It was interesting and also disappointing, that when I called for expressions of interest from students to undertake this community clinical practicum, I had no applications from the Aboriginal and/ or Torres Strait Islander students. They reported they were not interested.
During my time at QUT I was seconded to the Queensland Health Department as Coordinator of Nursing Services, Aboriginal Health Program and then as Acting Director of that area. It was during this time, I also served on the Queensland Nursing Council.
As part of my Masters thesis, I researched why there are so few Aboriginal Registered Nurses. I found many reasons that included student to student and academic to student racism and discrimination, as well as inadequate or a lack of support systems for students. I still lament that there are few, if any, Aboriginal nurses in senior administrative positions in mainstream health care settings.
My research prompted me to leave QUT and set about doing something about changing the system. After a great deal of help the Congress of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Nurses (CATSIN) was born. I am still working as Chairperson of CATSIN today.
Nursing has provided me with many opportunities. In 1985, I was awarded an Order of Australia for service to Nursing Education and Aboriginal Health,
I was awarded the Royal College of Nursing (Queensland Chapter) Distinguished Nursing Award in 2000 and in 2002 and a Doctor of Nursing, Honoris Causa from Royal Melbourne Institute of
Technology (RMIT), for service to the community and to the profession.
I have been awarded Adjunct Professorships from James Cook University and Griffith University and sit on advisory boards/ committees of four university schools of nursing and act in an informal advisory committee for others.
I have served a term as a member on the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation, and as a member of the National Indigenous Advisory Committee for SOCOG and was honoured to be a torch bearer and Mayor for the day at the Olympic Village (2000).
The Queensland Nursing Council have afforded me the honour of naming a book bursary, ‘the Sally Goold Book Bursary for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Nursing Students.
I have also been a Commissioner of the Crime and Misconduct Commission. I have continued nursing and have loved being a nurse and living my dream. Nursing has been very good to me and I believe I have made a very strong contribution to nursing and helped my people.
I would never have been able to do what I have if not for the sup of my family in the early stages and later, the wonderful support I have got throughout my career from George and Cameron.
I want to say to the student nurses and registered nurses that the road is not going to be easy, but nothing worth doing is ever easy. Without doubt, you will have to stand up and be counted for what you believe in.
In my experience, it was OK being an Aboriginal registered nurse if you don’t really assert yourself too much and are fairly compliant, but once you start to climb the ladder, things become a little testy and the barriers go up and you may find that some non-Aboriginal nurses join forces to keep you out and “in your place.” I had a few problems overcoming those barriers, but they were not insurmountable and you too can overcome them.
As Aboriginal nurses, we have to work that bit harder for what we achieve. You cannot be as good as, you have to be better than others in order to make your mark because being as good as is not enough for those who judge you. You need to be a strong person to rise above those issues and to overcome the barriers placed in front of you. How fair is that? Life is not always fair, is it?