Symposium honours first Aboriginal RN to train at Lismore hospital

Published in the May 2017 issue

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Ena Williams at Lismore Base Hospital in the 1940s.

Ena Williams broke new ground in the 1940s in Lismore as the first Aboriginal trainee nurse at the city’s hospital. Later in her career, Ena was the senior nurse at the Maningrida Clinic in what was then the largest Aboriginal remote community in the Northern Territory, and in 1974 was part of the Cyclone Tracy emergency response team.

Ena’s achievements as a nurse and a Bundjalung woman were recognised this month at the fourth annual Southern Cross University and the Northern New South Wales Local Health District Nursing and Midwifery Symposium. The collaborative conference is held in May to coincide with celebrations for International Nurses Day and the International Day of the Midwife.

This year’s symposium was named in Ena’s honour and her sister Elva Dickfoss (nee Williams) delivered a speech outlining Ena’s remarkable life and legacy. Mrs Dickfoss’ full speech is reprinted below.

Ena’s nephew is Rod Williams, a lecturer at the University’s Gnibi College of Indigenous Australian Peoples at the Coffs Harbour campus.

Mrs Dickfoss said Ena started working as a housemaid after finishing primary school and had to upgrade her education to second-year high school maths and English level passes before she could sit the Lismore Base Hospital entry exam.

“(Also) the Hospital asked the other trainee nurses whether they were willing to share their living quarters with an Aboriginal Trainee Nurse before accepting Ena (in late 1944),” she said.

At the hospital Ena became lifelong friends with another trainee, an Englishwoman named Diane.

Ena completed the General Nursing certificate at Brisbane General Hospital and in 1956 she joined the Brisbane Women’s Hospital and completed the midwifery certificate.  Later she completed the Maternal & Child Care certificate under Dr Lady Phyllis Cilento, a pioneering advocate of family planning in Queensland.

After stints as matron at the Isisford Hospital and then the Normanton Hospital, including flying doctor nursing duties, Ena worked at Tennant Creek Hospital before being employed at the Maningrida Clinic as a senior nurse from 1968 to 1976.

“The (Maningrida) community responded to having an Aboriginal nurse with a caring nature and a passion for nursing,” said Mrs Dickfoss.

“Ena made an impact on nursing at Maningrida that influenced changes to other parts of the Northern Territory.”

Elva Dickfoss (nee Williams), the sister of Ena Williams.

Ena passed away in 2000 in Brisbane.

At the symposium on May 12, Professor Iain Graham, Dean of Health and Head of the School of Health and Human Sciences, said: “Today, in conjunction with International Nurses day and the International Day of the Midwife, we acknowledge someone special.

“A remarkable woman who crossed a cultural border and followed her passion and chose to be a nurse. A woman who possessed courage and resilience and who applied her caring nature to ensure many patients and their families received good nursing care.

“Ena is a nursing role model not just for Indigenous people but for all of us who choose to be nurses and midwives.”

Rod Williams said he was excited and proud that his aunt’s story was being recognised by the University’s School of Health and Human Sciences and the Northern New South Wales Local Health District.

“My family has always known of my Aunty Ena’s achievements in nursing and that her story was relatively unknown to the wider community except to those who had directly experienced her professionalism and passion for her work and the communities she engaged with,” Rod said.

“The opportunity for her now to be recognised came from a discussion I had with Associate Professor Wendy Gilleard who said that the School of Health and Human Sciences was gathering a collection of stories about nurses who trained locally and went on to do fabulous things.

“Well, did I have a story? I am very proud that my Aunt’s story can now be added to Aboriginal nursing and midwifery history as a role model who broke through the barriers of her times and make sure that nursing and other health-related studies are achievable career paths available to all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students,” said Rod.


Elva Dickfoss’ speech delivered at the 2017 Ena Williams Nursing and Midwifery Symposium on May 12, 2017

I would like to acknowledge the Elders past and present who have lived on this land.

Thank the Southern Cross University and NSW Health for recognising my older Sister Ena’s nursing and midwifery career at this event.  We have a number of family members who are here celebrating her achievements with us this morning.

We have a photographic slide show of Ena and family in the background.

My father Allen loved the land and started as a billy boy for a Bullock Team in the timber industry.  An old Scotchman taught him to read while working in the bush.  I remember how people from around the district would get him to sharpen their saws and axes, he could weld, make toys, tables and chairs, fix up cars and a talented musician at local dances who could play the saw, saxophone, squeeze box and gum leaf.

My father met my mother Sylvia in Nymboida when working on the construction of the power station in the 1920s, he played football for the local 1924 side – in the photograph it has Mum’s older brother Uncle Kenny Gordon and one of the Daley family.  Thomas Gordon my grandfather owned a selection (land) at Nymboida where he broke horses and grew crops.  My mother learnt her horse and farming skills as a young woman.

My mother received a grade six education at the local Nymboida School as her father, a Gumbaynggirr man, was stationed at Nymboida as the Aboriginal Police Tracker. Her mother (my grandmother), Ethel, was a Bundjalung woman from Baryulgil.

My parents were hard working. My father in the Timber industry and share farmed in various locations such as Mt Burrell and Casino. During the Second World War he travelled to Central Queensland to lay bitumen roads in the Emerald region and my mother continued to run the farm in Casino. We milked the cows before going to school.

Our generation received a high school education, except Ena who started working as a housemaid with the Kissant family (solicitors) in Casino after finishing grade six.

In 1942, Ena, my sister Faye and Mabel Freeburn and Joyce Kenny went to Sydney and worked at the Prince Henry Hospital. That is when Ena decided to do nursing; she came back to Casino after two years.

During that period my father became friends with Major Austen (Welfare Officer & Returned Service Man). Often they chatted and he got advice from my father about Aboriginal issues and township matters. Ena wanted to do nursing in Sydney but was advised she had to have a second year high school pass in maths and English.  Major Austin and dad started working towards getting Ena into nursing at Lismore Base Hospital.

Ena approached Mr Walsh at the Bend school who taught her younger sisters and brothers and he agreed to help her.

Ena passed the exam and in late 1944 Ena was accepted into the Lismore Base Hospital.  My mother made sure she was dressed right and approached a local dressmaker, Mrs Brack, with the material to make a couple of nice dresses and night wear.

Ena was told later told by her English friend Dianne (trainee Nurse), who became a lifelong friend to Ena (they stayed in contact for over 30 years) that the Hospital asked the other trainee nurses whether they were willing to share their living quarters with an Aboriginal Trainee Nurse before accepting Ena.

My father Allen Williams passed away in Casino in June 1946. My mother continued to support her children by doing hotel cooking work around Casino and managing the farm with her oldest son Ben.

In 1947 at the age of 22 years Ena had done close to three years of training at Lismore Base Hospital before meeting and marrying Colin Caldwell. Colin was a talented Aboriginal football player alongside other Aboriginal players like Dickie Roberts. Their daughter Beverly was born in June 1948.  Ena’s marriage broke up and she followed the family (mother and sisters) to Brisbane around 1953.

Ena believed her nursing career was over until contacting a job agency in 1954 and found that she could continue and complete her nursing training at the Brisbane General Hospital (then the largest hospital in the southern hemisphere). They recognised her training at Lismore and accredited two years towards the General Nursing Certificate (a four-year course).

On completing the General Nursing certificate, Ena in 1956 joined the Brisbane Women’s Hospital and completed the midwifery certificate. She then joined Dr Lady Cilento to undertake the Maternal & Child Care certificate.

Leaving Brisbane in 1964, Ena headed north to be employed as a matron at the Isisford Hospital and then the Normanton Hospital, which included undertaking flying doctor nursing duties. Ena met Jim Pickersgill while in north Queensland.

In 1967 they travelled to Tennant Creek and Ena worked at the hospital for one year before applying in Darwin for remote community work. Ena was employed at the Maningrida Clinic as a senior nurse from 1968 to 1976.  The Maningrida clinic had six nursing staff and a number of Aboriginal nurse aides and was then the largest Aboriginal remote community in the NT.

The community had seven different language groups who were now living in one settlement (town).  Many came into Maningrida to live during the wet season and out to their homelands in the dry season. The nursing clinic serviced and managed the cultural diversity and clashes across the region.

I can remember Ena at Maningrida making up the baby tucker, educating mothers and taking Kindergarten statistics on the health of the children. Ena always had a spare bed in her house for mothers with a sick baby. The community responded to having an Aboriginal nurse with a caring nature and a passion for nursing.

For example, young mothers supported by one of the old women would at times come to Ena’s house with a sick baby on the weekend. Ena would say, “Mick, the male nurse, was on duty. Did you see him?”  The response was ‘he is not around, Missis’ and the mother and baby would stay overnight. The next day Ena would ask Mick where he was – and yes he was on duty and at the clinic but they chose to see Ena.

Ena was called into Darwin after Cyclone Tracy in December 1974 as part of the emergency response team.

After leaving the Northern Territory, Jim and Ena brought a property outside of Gympie and then a hotel licence in Wyandra, Central Queensland. Nursing and caring for children was still close to her heart. While at Gympie, Ena would be asked to travel with sick patients going to Brisbane for medical procedures and while at Wyandra would assist a mother through the court system to keep her children. Ena was a strong believer that children should stay with their mothers unless the evidence was detrimental to the child’s health and safety.

In summing up….

Ena was our older sister (to me, Betty and Val) and always made her younger sisters see the purpose of anything were doing at the time.

Ena made an impact on nursing at Maningrida that influenced changes to other parts of the Northern Territory. The Aboriginal nurse aides at Maningrida were trained locally at first, then NT Health started to bring the Maningrida staff to Darwin for training on a regular basis and during this period the local staff became highly skilled nursing aides in the clinic.

I personally can remember the Aboriginal clinic staff giving me my injections before going overseas in the 1970s.  All staff knew their responsibilities and roles at the Maningrida Clinic and worked as a team.

The story that I remember is of Ena working with the visiting dentist who had a young boy of about five-years-old in the chair. Ena looked out the door and saw his grandmother heading their way with a big waddie (stick) because her grandson was making a lot of noise. Ena ran to lock the door just before the grandmother arrived to protect her grandson.

Ena passed away in March 2000 in Brisbane.

Ena would be very honoured today by having this 2017 Nursing & Midwifery Symposium named after her and that her great grandson Brodie has travelled up from Melbourne with his mother to attend this session.

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