Foundation Day 2020
5 Oct 2020
Image: A digital reproduction of the Sisters of St John of God nursing on Mount Charlotte.
What pearls of wisdom can we learn from the Sisters of St John of God this year as we continue to face the COVID-19 pandemic?
The Sisters of St John of God were founded in Ireland in 1871 where they were called to help those in need.
Answering the call
In 1895, Bishop Matthew Gibney invited the sisters to Western Australia to continue their work in helping fight typhoid and other diseases. Two sisters, Sister Angela and Sister Magdalen, were sent to Kalgoorlie to provide much needed nursing care as the government hospital was overcrowded and patients were being turned away.
Just like the sisters, St John of God Health Care rose to the challenge this year when the federal government asked the private sector hospitals to support the public health system in the fight against COVID-19. Some Victorian hospitals also received aged care residents as the virus affected residential aged care homes.
Equipped and ready
The sisters nursed from a tent, giving advice and comfort to those in need. They stressed the importance of boiling water, washing hands and laundering bed linen. Contemporary reports describe: ‘hundreds of men lying ill in their tents, un-nursed’. Angela and Magdalen’s equipment was their faith, knowledge and experience – used in the form of practical advice and care.
The community fundraised for and opened the St John of God Hospital, Coolgardie, on 25 November 1896 followed by the St John of God Kalgoorlie Hospital in 1897. St John of God Subiaco Hospital opened in April 1898.
We have 17 state-of-the-art St John of God hospitals across the country that have access to the latest equipment and special acute care and Intensive Care Units.
Our teams are well versed in PPE usage and supported by Infection Prevention and Control teams and spotters on site. We have teams across the country monitoring stock levels and sourcing and testing alternatives where appropriate.
Teams with spirit
Of the seventeen ‘pioneer’ Sisters of St John of God who came to Western Australia from Ireland before 1900, seven were nurses. They were amongst the first trained nurses in Australia. Having trained and nursed in workhouse infirmaries and fever hospitals in the dioceses Ireland, all of the pioneer Sisters would have been aware of the personal risks involved in such nursing.
Just two sisters arrived in the Goldfields in 1896 initially: Sister Angela and Sister Magdalene who would have had to work closely together, and support each other through the five months they nursed together in basic conditions.
St John of God Health Care boasts a team of more than 14,000 caregivers across the country.
Caregivers on the front line have been supported in each hospital but also by a central team known as the COVID-19 Emergency Response Group aimed at supporting hospitals and ensuring they have everything they need.
Infection Prevention and Control
1890sSpread by contaminated food and water, typhoid was rife wherever people lived in close proximity to each other. No formal isolation or quarantine measures were introduced during Western Australia’s typhoid epidemic but, as this quote from early 1895 suggests, some people took whatever steps they could to limit the risk of infection: “The fever of Coolgardie is typhoid … The wise sleep outside the township and only visit Bayley Street for meals and business.”
It was understood very early that COVID-19 was spread through human contact and droplets. Physical distancing rules were put in place across Australia including lock downs that lasted weeks. Victorians underwent a second lockdown as infection numbers increased in middle of the year.
At least 18,000 people contracted typhoid in over 80 different localities throughout Western Australia over a series of epidemics in the 1890s. The initial mortality rate was 20 per cent, averaging out to around 10 per cent by the end of the decade. The official number of deaths was 1,879; the actual number is likely to have been much higher.
The Official number of infections of COVID-19 in Australia at 5 October 2020 is 27,144 with 894 deaths.
Our caregivers today display the same determination and compassion for their patients that the Sisters of St John of God did in the 1890s. Technology and infrastructure may have changed significantly but we know that a robust health care system is central to fighting a viral outbreak and this includes a dedicated team of trained health care workers.
Information provided with thanks to the St John of God Health Care Heritage Collection.
Image: St John of God Coolgardie Hospital.
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