Over 40 years of service and counting

Janene Steward - Registered Nurse (RN) and Midwife

For over 40 years I have worked as a scrub RN, Operating Theatre Manager (OTM) and an agency nurse for Queensland health’s Rural and Remote Nurse Relief Programme (RRNRP).  I spent the first 31 years of my career as a scrub RN and OTM in NSW and QLD until I decided that administration was no longer for me and resigned from my role in 2004.

Without any idea of what I would be doing next, I enlisted with an operating theatre agency and they offered me a four week contract in Katherine, NT where I fell in love with the more remote areas of Australia and its indigenous people.

My husband and I then travelled extensively with RRNRP on primary healthcare placements through the northern parts of remote Australia including the Cape, the Gulf and the Torres. Our contracts lasted a minimum of three months at a time so, with our boat in tow, we’d extend our stay wherever the fishing was good.  

Shortly after my husband’s death, I undertook a six week ‘upskill/refresh’ placement with RRNRP at the Emergency Department (ED) of Rockhampton Base Hospital. When RRNRP came to the end of their contract, the coordinator informed me that the Rural Locum Assistance Programme (Rural LAP) were looking for experienced remote area nurses and looked favourably on those with either a midwifery or psychiatric qualification so I phoned the programme and the rest is history!

Rural LAP (formally the Nursing and Allied Health Rural Locum Scheme) commenced in July 2011. The Nursing and Allied Health Rural Locum Scheme (NAHRLS) offered short term remote area placements to cover permanent health professionals that left the community for ongoing education. The short term nature of NAHRLS placements really appealed to me as I no longer wanted to do long contracts without my husband to keep me company. It gave me the opportunity to take time off at my convenience to travel abroad to visit two of my children and my two grandchildren.

Rural LAP allows me to continue working in primary healthcare and feel satisfied at the end of the day for making a difference. I've been given the opportunity to see parts of Australia that a tourist or seasoned traveller wouldn't see and use all of the skills I acquired during my 48 years of full-time work. I was one of the inaugural NAHRLS health professionals that provided locum support throughout rural and remote Australia and now, almost five years later, I am still working with Nada and the team at Rural LAP.

I have been to countless communities in Top End and Central Australia including the Tiwi Islands, Groote Island and the Crocodile Group of Islands. I have enjoyed assignments on the Cape York Peninsula in QLD and Kiwirrikurra in WA, the most remote community in Australia - a two hour charter flight west of Alice Springs. I have stepped outside my norm, working in both medical and surgical units for regional hospitals in country NSW and the maternity unit of a large regional hospital in SA. I recently enjoyed a wonderful four weeks in Corowa on the Murray River where I explored the Rutherglen winegrowing region in my free time. I’ve also extended my knowledge by undertaking assignments at six other regional hospitals in SA.

Whilst on assignment in King’s Canyon, I saw its beauty at sunset and I thought “Wow! They’ve paid for me to fly here, they’re providing me with accommodation and they’re even paying me to be here for two weeks! How much better does it get than this?”

I was flown over Kakadu during the wet season to the first of several assignments in Gunbalanya. The pilot flew so low that I could see the billabongs covered in water lilies, birds nesting in the trees and lazy crocs lying in the sun.

In Pormpuraaw, I caught two barramundi off the beach after not fishing for several years!

On another placement, I walked into Lake Cargelligo Hospital in NSW to commence a 3 week stint only to see a photograph in their historical cabinet of my own mother in uniform when she worked there as a RN in the late 1940s. I have since donated her nursing dictionary to the historical society to place in the cabinet alongside her photo.

On a repeat assignment in a remote community, I renewed a “friendship” with a patient who had attempted to take his own life several years prior. It was a night when I was on call and unable to get the medical flight in for over six hours. At a recent visit, we sat on the veranda of the clinic and as I held his hand I told him how frightened I was that he might not make it through that night. He thanked me for my care and apologised for putting me through that horrific ordeal. This was such a rewarding experience for me and probably one of the highlights of my long career.

The biggest reward for me is the fact that my presence and the assistance I give is appreciated wherever I go. True, the accommodation is not always what we would choose to live in and the clinic facilities can be somewhat limited, but I get a great deal of satisfaction knowing that I am resourceful enough to be able to draw on the vast experience behind me to manage wherever I am needed.

I have always found that, with very few exceptions, the clinic and hospital teams are unbelievably welcoming and ready to assist my integration into their system without a hassle. I have received beautiful farewell cards and was even treated to a farewell party after just ten shifts. I was given small tokens of local memorabilia to remember the fun times we had and I still keep in contact with some people by regular correspondence. Without exception management has always been 110% supportive and have often asked how they can make things better for us locums.

I consider myself to be a “grey nomad without a caravan”. I feel like I’m on a continual working holiday around Australia, having the privilege to work in locations and live amongst people and traditions that the majority of Australians will never experience.

Even though I’m due to retire this year, I’m blessed to be a fit and agile woman who intends to continue in this current role for a while to come. I have a burning desire to work until the beginning of 2019 when I can proudly say that I have nursed for 50 years. As long as I am able to continue to integrate my stepdown-to-retirement work schedule into my personal life as a mother and grandmother I will find Rural LAP the perfect job for me.

I would recommend it to others and the fact that I am still working on Rural LAP assignments after five years is testimony enough that I enjoy the diversity.