A Nurse’s Memories of Her Time in TPNG

A Nurse’s Memories of Her Time in TPNG

Ruth Pitt (née Lewis) – PART 1

I grew up in Port Pirie, South Australia. After General Nursing training in Adelaide, as a Registered Nurse (Sister in those days) with two friends I sailed to England for Midwifery Training at Southmead, Bristol, then South London (which included cycling to home births). We hitch-hiked to see most of the UK in days off, then for four months explored Europe the same way.

On one of our Qantas London to Adelaide ticket stopovers I enjoyed helping a Frontier Nursing Service nurse in the Kentucky Mountains for two weeks, although I found bumping over creek-bed roads at night with a loaded pistol in the glove-box scary. The Nurse-Midwives in Kentucky rode horses for home visits in winter. I then decided that I preferred community nursing to hospital work although the next six months of night duty at Pirie Hospital financed my six months unpaid Infant Welfare Training at Tresillian, Vaucluse, Sydney.

I had received a book about TPNG from a mother in Pirie Hospital and, seeing an advertisement for nurses in that territory, I applied. I flew up in September 1967 and, with six other new recruits, stayed in Moresby’s Taurama Hospital Sisters’ Quarters and attended orientation for two weeks. We also had to do shifts in the hospital.

Taurama Hospital wards, 1967

On my first day, in the Obstetrics Ward, the local sister on duty with me was ill and rested in the delivery room. With students’ help I was kept busy delivering babies on the ward beds, with other mothers and their carers in the room plus people outside also watching. Certainly, a different experience! Patients had to have a relative looking after them, and these carers slept under the bed at night. It was also strange to experience the new mothers yelling from their beds to their family camped outside.

Being a TC (Triple Certificate), I then went with the Maternal & Child Health (MCH) nurses who ran village clinics. Another recruit and I hired a car to explore the Moresby area.

We seven were then flown out to different places. I went to Rabaul, on the Gazelle Peninsula, New Britain. I lived with three others in a waterfront house on Sulphur Creek Road. It was a lovely spot and a convenient walk to work, the shops, and United Church. Unfortunately, we had constant prowler problems so later I shifted to a new complex near Nonga Hospital.

The senior MCH nurse supervised the 5½ day town clinic in a former trade-store building. We were selling brick-shaped tea-candles to raise funds for a new clinic next to the market. Unfortunately, these scorched purchasers’ furniture and they were not the success for which we had hoped.

Two of us each went by driven Land Rovers with a local trained nurse and two students from Nonga or Vunapope Roman Catholic Hospitals to villages all over the peninsula to hold monthly MCH clinics. Unfortunately, later, the Vunapope nurses stopped coming after we began giving information about family planning clinics to mothers who had four or more children.

A student giving the health talk

We held our clinics in village shelters or under trees on the beach (sandflies love me). As well as immunising babies with BCG (to prevent tuberculosis) soon after birth, Triple Antigen and Sabin at one, two, and three months plus later boosters, we checked and treated infants and children for malaria, chest, skin, eye, ear, and gastric infections, keeping records and recording the immunisations on the babies’ cards kept by the mothers. Sulfadimidine (for gastro) came in four-gallon cans.

We also had to mix peanut butter (up to the elbow) in four-gallon cans from which we would make small balls covered in powdered milk for protein deficient toddlers. We treated tropical ulcers with Gentian Violet. Duck-diving in the sea was recommended for children with chronic nasal discharge. Thick, crash-helmet style cradle-cap was prised off with a haircut. We checked pregnant women and gave them tetanus shots.

A health talk had to be given at each clinic—in Pidgin which most mothers understood. I went to evening classes and soon picked it up. The nurses spoke English. Three times a year we visited Watom Island to immunise, check and treat the children there. We held clinics on the beach and slept on the deck of the cockroach-infested boat. On one visit I, with help, climbed the hill to check the students at the Methodist school on top. (Single certificated nurses did school health checks on the peninsula.)

Vunabuk beach clinic, 1967

Students started school at 7:00 am. If their birth dates were unknown, they could start when they could touch the opposite ear over their heads. I ran a monthly clinic for the expatriates at the town clinic. I also visited squatter settlements on the town’s fringe to give health information, check the young and refer concerns to the town clinic or hospital. The villages tended to be either Catholic or Methodist and we had to site clinics between them to not apparently favour either. We held two clinics at the same time on Matupit Island for this reason. Some Methodist babies were called John or Wesley, and some Catholic babies called Pius after the Pope at that time.

In Rabaul there was a great market for fresh food and souvenirs. One Saturday morning a nurse left eggs wrapped in banana leaves in the clinic kitchen. On Monday there were chickens running around it. Social life was hectic—there were welcome and farewell dinners, other parties, and celebrations. Officers on ships in port also invited us for drinks and nibbles.

Most of the stores were owned by Chinese nationals, and there was a Kuomintang Club which held functions with great food. During drives to visit friends on surrounding plantations or to the beaches we saw evidence of the Japanese occupation during World War II. On Anzac Day, a friend and I went to the Dawn Service at Bita Paka War Cemetery, watched the march in town then two-up at the RSL club. I went with friends on plane-chartered weekends to Buka Island, the Trobriands and the Goroka Show.

In July 1968, my brother Mervyn came up to visit me. We climbed the biggest extinct volcano ‘Mother’ and looked over the rim of ‘Tavurvur.’ He enjoyed his stay and returned for four years to manage CPL plantations, then a privately owned one, which produced cocoa and copra.

In September 1968 I transferred to the Chimbu District in the Highlands. •

Parts Two & Three will be published in future issues of PNG Kundu.


Worked for Burns Philp in Popondetta and Port Moresby from 1980 through 1987

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