After 47 spectacular years of nursing patients across the world, St Andrew’s War Memorial Hospital orthopaedic and neurosciences nurse unit manager Sheila Gilritchie is retiring – ready to spend more time with her family and brush up on her French speaking skills.
Born in Scotland, Sheila came from a family of nurses – her mother and two aunts were psychiatric nurses and visiting the hospital and patients was just something she did growing up. Sheila began her own nursing journey on 3 September 1973 at the Royal Infirmary in Edinburgh.
“It was very strict live in and training with a 10 pm curfew for the first two of three years and we worked in the hospital for another year after qualification,” Sheila said.
Sheila nursed overseas in Brussels and France (where she nursed in French!) for a number of years and also took a year off to run a bar for a friend.
“I always wanted to be a nurse – never wanted to do anything else,” Sheila said.
“It sounds old fashioned and cliched, but I have always wanted to make a difference in people’s lives, especially orthopaedic patients.
“We care for patients after their surgery, they get back on their feet, they go home and you’ve helped them get their lives back to normal,” she said.
Sheila developed her love of orthopaedics during her early years of nursing and study in Scotland.
“Orthopaedics has come a long way since I started nursing – patients used to be in hospital for four weeks before they’d be mobilised with a hip replacement and sometimes they’d be in hospital for six to seven weeks in total, but now patients go home on day two!” Sheila said.
“The medical advances have been extraordinary – we used to keep patients in traction for long periods and they’d develop pressure sores – it certainly taught you how to read a patient’s skin colour and understand if circulation issues were arising,” she said.
Sheila, her husband and two daughters moved to Australia in 1989, and spent time nursing in Cairns before moving to Brisbane’s Greenslopes Private hospital for 14 years. Sheila has been the Nurse Unit Manager of the Orthopaedic and Neurology ward at St Andrew’s since 2009.
“Neuroscience and neurosurgery is a relatively new speciality, so after a long time of nursing it’s wonderful to learn something new – you’re always learning something new every day – even now,” Sheila says.
“When I first started at St Andrew’s, the doctors were residents and now they’re consultants – I think they’re all a bit frightened of me!” she laughs.
“Knowing them as long as I have, has developed a high level of trust and mutual respect which is wonderful,” she said.
Sheila has spent her career elevating orthopaedic nurses improve patient outcomes.
“When you’re nursing someone in traction or plasters, there’s so many things that can happen and it’s important to nurse them correctly,” Sheila said.
Passion for her fellow nurses has seen Sheila as President of the Queensland Orthopaedic Nurses Association for the last 12 years, President of the Australian and New Zealand Orthopaedic Nurses Association and is still a member of that committee which has published many articles and organised conferences.
“Three years ago I had an opportunity to speak in China on blood clot prevention and when I got up to speak, I was told there was 21 000 people in the audience and I was overawed,” Sheila said.
“Nursing gets you everywhere across the world and you always end up bumping into someone you know.
“I have become good friends with my colleagues and had many shared experiences. My team here are extraordinary and I can count on one hand how many people I’ve had to employ during that time,” she said.
But it’s the patients who reinforce what Sheila’s work is all about.
“I just love helping patients get well and when they can walk themselves back in to visit and say thank you – that’s very special,” Sheila said.
“St Andrew’s has a lovely ethos and the staff all help each other, it has a great atmosphere and I have made lots of friends.
“I’m very lucky to have worked here and met the people I have – patients and staff alike.
“I worked through the emergence of hepatitis, AIDS and MRSA which were pretty scary times and in the case of hepatitis, two doctors I worked with died as a result. As nurses we just keep helping our patients, take necessary precautions and take it day by day.
As we say goodbye to Sheila, we thank her for what she has done, not only at St Andrew’s War Memorial Hospital, but for of nurses within her profession.
“I want to leave nursing while I still love it. I love my job,” Sheila said.