Loyal servant Kathy Quirk at Herberton Hospital.
Loyal servant Kathy Quirk at Herberton Hospital.

Nursing stalwart reflects on 50-plus extraordinary years

OVER 50 years, recently retired nurse Kathy Quirk has seen the landscape of the Atherton Tableland town of Herberton change ever so slowly as she watched the ebb and flow of the generations.

At the far end of the town where it might take no more than a few minutes to drive from one end to the other, we sit in an old-fashioned timber booth in the quirky Jacaranda Coffee Lounge savouring our tea and coffee, hidden from the searing north Queensland heat.

It's just along the street from the Royal Hotel and the little convenience store that services the town's 900 residents. Follow the road either way alongside Wild River, up the hill to find Mount St Bernard boarding school, three churches, a historic village and the Herberton Mining Museum overflowing with historical treasures.

Kathy sits with her chin tilted down, eyes on the table, wary of the tape recorder, hoping no one she knows will stroll in.

Hardly possible, one could assume. The 67-year-old has been an enrolled nurse at Herberton Hospital for 50, actually as of March it is now 51, extraordinary years.


Kathy Quirk in the early days of her nursing career.
Kathy Quirk in the early days of her nursing career.


She's a shy, quietly spoken indigenous woman who is reticent to talk about herself until you invite her to speak about her time working in her hometown hospital. Then Kathy's chin lifts, her voice rises a notch and her eyes sparkle with pride.

"Families that I have known over the 50 years or so come over and ask if I am still working," she said.

"I have to stop and think, who are you? Then they have to tell me their name because I forget. I meet so many people.

"I have nursed a lot of people in the old hospital and they have had babies. Now those kids are fathers and mothers themselves."

It was Kathy's first job after leaving Herberton State School and it's remained her only job throughout her working life.

Once Kathy finished high school she went looking for a job. She knew it would be hard to find one locally. There was only a college, school, hospital and small businesses and not enough jobs to go around.

At that time Herberton Hospital delivered general care to the surrounding Atherton Tableland population that was farming the rich soil or working in mining.

A family affair

Kathy always wanted to be a nurse. She had a dream of working at Cootharinga in Townsville, which provides support to children and adults with disabilities.

But really, she didn't want to leave the town where her single mother and five siblings were still living, and where the family's generations before lived.

"Mum worked hard and supported us," Kathy said. She cleaned the local pub for many years before securing the cleaning job at the Herberton Hospital.

Luckily for Kathy her mother found out the matron was looking for a nurse's aide. Kathy got the job on a three-month trial. "From there I just stuck it out," Kathy said.

"It was like a family thing." Her mother worked at the hospital for some 30 years. One of her sisters also worked there for 20 years in the laundry and kitchen.

Kathy worked as an unregistered nurse's aide for about 10 years before she headed 100km down the hill to the TAFE college in Cairns to do her nursing certification course. She remembers the early days of the busy maternity ward and when some mothers had to adopt out their babies.

"We got attached to those little babies; it was sad when we had to say goodbye to them," Kathy said.

With progress comes change

Gone are those days as the hospital changed dramatically about 35 years ago. While the town's history has been proudly preserved, its population gradually depleted as the nature of the farming and mining changed, and the commercial and social centre of the region moved to the nearby town of Atherton.

All the general and maternity care was moved 15 minutes along the ridge to the major health hub at Atherton District Memorial Hospital, leaving Herberton Hospital with 38 beds for aged care and palliative care patients.

"It's hard, as when they get in there all they want to do is go home," Kathy mused about the mainly former farmers.

Kathy has happily stayed as an enrolled nurse working on the frontline.

"I find I can do better with hands-on nursing," she said.

What lies ahead

"I could have worked another 12 months, but then I thought, it's time to get out and enjoy my life as I have spent more than half my life working at the hospital. I feel I have had enough."

Kathy said she would take with her many lovely memories of her time at the hospital and of some of the patients, particularly those who didn't have family visit them until it was too late.