I promised you a tripe story so here it is…
When I was a student nurse, part of our training included an eight-week secondment to one of three centres. You weren’t given a choice (standard) and instead, given orders as to where your secondment was to be. Up for selection was eight weeks in a psychiatric hospital, eight weeks in a hospital dedicated to the terminally ill or eight weeks in a hospital for profoundly physically and mentally disabled children.
My ‘lucky dip’, landed on the children’s hospital for the profoundly physically and mentally disabled.
Collaroy Hospital was a small hospital of no more than about 60 beds. It was situated within a rambling old beach house with rolling lawns that led right down to the sand. The story as to how this beach house became a children’s hospital is that the property had always been privately owned but the last remaining family owner bequeathed the property to the State Government with the stipulation that it had to be transformed into a care centre for children in need.
A basic conversion took place and the hospital opened for children with many, many issues. There were three 20-bed wards. The first was for children who were mobile as in they could walk and run however as many of them had a habit of banging their heads into the walls and floors, they had to wear crash hats.
The second ward was for babies and toddlers and this was the preferred ward to work in as it wasn’t as depressing and there was no heavy lifting involved.
The third ward was for older children who were profoundly retarded meaning an IQ of less than 20. Working on this ward was physically demanding as most of the children were teenagers; unable to walk or communicate and lifting them in and out of cots, wheelchairs and bean bags while they remained a dead weight was physically demanding.
The staff at the hospital eagerly anticipated the arrival of student nurses as it gave them an opportunity for a lighter load. While preferring to work with the babies and toddlers, all student nurses were sent to the ‘bean bag ward’; so named because the patients spent most of their days reclining in bean bags.
Arriving for my first day on the job was a rather confronting experience. I was shown around and then told I would be working on the bean bag ward, (standard).
It was a ward full of the most depressing and confronting images of children I have ever experienced. And all of the children seemed to be there due to some horrific, tragic and sad story. One of them was a girl named ‘Louise’ whose parents had been unable to have children. Finally they were able to adopt and they adopted a perfectly normal and beautiful baby girl. When she was six weeks old they took her to the clinic for her Triple Antigen immunisation vaccine where she immediately had an alarming allergic reaction that transformed her normalcy into nothing more than a vegetative state. Unable to cope with her profound mental retardation that came with a high level of dependency, her parents admitted her to the Collaroy Hospital. She was 14 years old when I looked after her and every Sunday her parents never failed to visit her.
My days at Collaroy started at 7am. The first task of the day was to get the patients out of bed. They all slept in cots to reduce the risk of falling out of bed, and they were all wearing nappies due to being incontinent. We firstly had to change the nappies, clean up any messes and then get them dressed for the day. Dressing a person who is a dead weight and a person who has no idea how to co-operate is challenging.
After they were changed and dressed we transferred them to wheelchairs and sat them around a long white table. For breakfast they sometimes had a basic cereal like weetbix but all too often there was a cook-up going on in the kitchen. I dreaded the cook-up.
I would wrap bibs around my five or six patients and then sit on edge as the food was brought to the table. I always feared the cook-up; it was tripe; white, rubbery long bits of tripe mixed with peas.
Trying to feed the profoundly disabled isn’t easy. When you have an IQ of less than 20 your table manners are nought and so as I was trying to feed them, limbs would be flailing and the tripe would be flying and I would be gagging. The tripe would hang out of their mouths and they would cough and sneeze and choke and bits of partially chewed tripe would hit me in the face and splatter across my uniform, often mixed with saliva and snot.
When the ordeal was over I’d clean up the carnage, picking up bits of tripe from the table, walls and floor. Then I’d wipe their hands and faces and move the children to the centre of the room where they would recline in beanbags until lunchtime. Meanwhile, the recovery process from the breakfast gagging experience was to go from patient to patient changing adult-sized nappies.
While I’ve painted a pretty awful picture of the Collaroy Hospital, it was a wonderful and much needed facility for parents of children needing 24-hour care. The children were all given the very best of care and they were looked after in a beautiful rambling beach house that was situated on one of Sydney’s prettiest beaches. While the work was extremely labour intensive that involved lots of heavy lifting, you couldn’t have asked to work in a more picturesque setting.
Sadly, the State Government closed the centre, sold off the land to a developer and what was once rolling lawns descending to the sand is now high-rise apartments. I’m not sure if that was what the generous benefactor had in mind.
I do wonder what has become of all the children who were once cared for by the staff at Collaroy Hospital. Where did they go?
My Collaroy Hospital experience was more than two decades ago and still to this day, I cannot look at tripe without seeing plastic bowls filled with rubbery tripe and peas and wondering how much of it was going to be spat on me.
And that’s why, when I had lunch with Tania and Celia and they were so keen to order the Trippa Fagiolini, I said, ‘No need to divide it into thirds’.