‘Privilege’ to care: Nurse leaves retirement to join COVID-19 frontline

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Marion Richardson retired from nursing several years ago, but a fleeting thought led her to keep her registration.

“I remember thinking perhaps there might be a really nasty flu,” says Mrs Richardson, her blue eyes twinkling on a grey afternoon in Bendigo. “What if a lot of the nurses get sick? They might need an extra hand.”

Marion Richardson, a nurse who has left retirement to join the frontlines of the COVID-19 pandemic.Credit:Simon Schluter

Mrs Richardson is among the brave army of people assisting with the COVID-19 pandemic response. At 78, she has come out of retirement to swab people at a testing site four days a week – a job she describes as a “privilege”.

We are in the heart of Bendigo, where Mrs Richardson lives, and the regional city is bustling. Restrictions have eased, shops and restaurants are open. We order coffees and watch waiters duck and weave between customers, balancing steaming plates of multi-hued spaghetti.

Mrs Richardson admits she’s never seen anything like this pandemic in the less than 60 years she has practised nursing. And she has certainly seen a lot in that time.

Coffees arrive, we set off on a walk to the botanic gardens, as Mrs Richardson recalls old memories.

East London. 1960s. Her sisters were out doing the jive, but the trainee nurse was working through the night at the Charring Cross Hospital. She treated tuberculosis. She nursed sex workers from the nearby red-light district in Soho who suffered serious complications caused by botched illegal terminations. Many died.

At 23, she moved to Australia, after responding to a job advertisement in a nursing magazine for an exotic-sounding town called Cahuna in far north Victoria on a mysterious river called the Murray.

She got the gig at the former bush hospital, Cahuna District Hospital, and flew to Melbourne, where she took the train to Bendigo and another train to Cahuna, and was greeted with a swarm of mosquitoes, a prehistoric insect called the praying mantis and outdoor toilets that “horrified” her.

She didn’t plan to stay long, but fell in love with the best footballer in town, a tall dairy farmer with dark features named Richard. They had six daughters.

“I was the new pommy sister,” she says.

Bendigo’s close-knit community has proven resilient in the face of the coronavirus pandemic. Credit:Justin McManus

By the 1980s, the small hospital had its first case of HIV. It wasn’t yet known how the disease was transmitted and staff were required to take extreme precautions. All nurses wore full PPE – the gear wasn’t disposable back then, it was made of cotton.

“We put in full infection control, but of course, we didn’t need to,” Mrs Richardson says, explaining they only learnt later the disease is blood-borne. “It’s sad. I still feel bad about it.”

Was there anything else she could recall that vaguely resembled the current pandemic?

Mrs Richardson remembers her parents’ fear she would contract polio as a child in London in the 1940s. “They shut down the pools,” she says.

But COVID-19, she says, is of course in a league of its own. None of the plagues or health crises of the past compare, in terms of scale and impact on the public – except perhaps the Spanish flu, which Mrs Richardson’s parents lived through.

During lockdown last year, Mrs Richardson did what she could to cope. “Everybody got a COVID beanie,” she laughs. There were many walks with friends.

It was a big shift from her pre-lockdown life – a busy routine of French classes, choir, monthly book club, feeding the homeless and regular visits to the Bendigo Art Gallery and local theatres.

So when she got a call from a nursing agency asking if she would help with the COVID-19 response, she didn’t hesitate.

“I have enjoyed the camaraderie and I enjoyed learning the new infection-control standards,” she says. “It’s so much better than making beanies.”

Administering tests four days a week at a drive-through centre in Bendigo, Mrs Richardson has swabbed pretty much everyone in town – truckies, politicians, professors. She never knows who might wind down their window.

Sometimes, people get nervous. “I always say … you’ve got to have the whole experience. You can’t have a good pandemic and not have it all.”

We laugh. The sun is peeping out of the clouds. Anxiety about the rising COVID-19 cases swells, but it feels good to talk.

So what’s Mrs Richardson’s advice to people suffering through lockdowns and restrictions? “Keep in touch with each other,” she says. “I think there’s been a community spirit. People have cared about each other. I think that’s been shown.”

The interview ends and Mrs Richardson asks if there is time to visit the Ulumbarra Theatre – a new theatre built in an old jail that was open for just a few years before COVID-19 shut it down.

Standing beneath the old watchtower, we peer through the steel gates, marvelling at the building’s beauty, quietly assuring ourselves that someday soon, we will be back among a roaring crowd, shedding tears of grief and joy.

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