Sheila Matthews

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“During another strike a brick was thrown through the bus window as I was driving. I  just stepped on the gas! I didn’t dare stop.”

I recently retired from Melbourne University, as a Clinical Trials Coordinator managing a national project for Indigenous Australian children.

Over 70 % of our Indigenous children have chronic hearing loss from an early age which can affect them for life.  The most appropriate treatments for them are still being debated, so the project is following up and measuring the outcomes of 2 different options.

My career path has been convoluted, but certainly not boring.   I’ve worked with an amazing array of people and professionals.

My mother told me from an early age that I would follow family tradition and go into nursing. I left high school at the end of 1969, when the major career choices for women were nursing, teaching or secretarial duties.

After completing a three-year nursing certificate at Royal Melbourne Hospital and then a year of midwifery at Royal Women’s in Melbourne, I knew hospital-based nursing wasn’t for me.

I loved the prenatal and postnatal care, when you saw women getting established as mothers, but hated the labor ward. The responsibility was huge; you were making life and death choices every day, it was a lot of pressure.

Luckily, once you complete the nursing training so many potential avenues open up.

Next I went to Allambie for 3 years. It was an institution for children in state care, many of whom had been mistreated by their parents.  There I used my medical background to help care for the kids, but I wasn’t in the hospital environment, a bonus for me.  Allambie has since been closed and today those children go straight to foster homes.

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From there I joined the School Medical Service in Melbourne’s northern suburbs. We would test children’s vision and hearing. Often parents had no idea that their children couldn’t see the blackboard or hear properly , so it was a great system to pick up these problems, especially in areas high in migrants.

Next, I decided on something different: I did a year at a Bible College in Queensland, with the idea of doing mission work.

Through that I came across a commune in Northern New South Wales – a Christian community full of hippies coming out of the new Age movement and trying to get a new focus on life after years of lifestyle heaving tied in with alcohol and drugs.

I decided to move into the commune as a “straight” and work as nurse in the local hospital. The living situation, and adjusting to the commune living, turned out much harder than I anticipated. In hindsight, if I knew how hard it would be, perhaps I wouldn’t have gone!  However, three years there taught me to be much more accepting of other people and their unique ways.

Around the mid 80’s, I ended up in Sydney, where I studied Community Health Nursing, including Infant Welfare.  This re-opened the door to school health around Ryde. I loved it and worked with a great array of nurses, speech therapists and psychologists.

A colleague who had worked as a community nurse in Nepal told tales of the health clinics she worked in; pulling teeth and treating tape worm infestations etc. It sounded horrendous, however we decided to go to Nepal on a holiday to check it out anyway!

I fell in love with the people and the culture.  I had no intention of pulling teeth and said I’d go to work there, but not as a nurse. They needed someone to oversee the Kathmandu office in more of a public relations role, and I thought that sounded perfect.

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Friends back in Australia contributed money to fund my adventure. Sometimes I think it says a lot about me, that my friends were willing to pay to keep me so far away!

The role involved, among other things, the logistics for providing cars, water pipes and medical equipment for our staff in remote villages.   I had fantastic Nepali staff.

They all spoke English, and joked that I knew enough Nepali to get into trouble, but not out of it.

The NGO provided medical care throughout Western Nepal, and my medical background combined with me being a bit of a “logistics nut” certainly helped.  I did all the liaisons with the new staff, meeting them right on the airport tarmac.  I loved working in a multi-national environment with all the expats.

Some situations were out of the ordinary.

Traffic was generally chaotic with people and cows sharing the roads with cars, buses and tuk-tuks. Once, there was a general strike, which meant no-one was allowed to drive on the roads. Our staff and visitors had to get to the airport and while it was too dangerous for our Nepali driver, there was less risk for a westerner caught driving.

So I drove them in the office mini-bus. At one point an angry mob surrounded the bus, kicking and shaking it. My adrenalin was pumping.  We made it through by keeping calm and smiling while slowly inching the vehicle forward. On another occasion I bogged the minibus to both axles in a ditch. Not very smart!!

During another strike a brick was thrown through the bus window after a pre-dawn trip to the airport. I  just stepped on the gas! I didn’t dare stop.

Nepal is such a land of contrasts. It’s filthy dirty, but the people have the hearts of gold, and it was an honour to be involved with the organization. Its effect is life changing for westerners who go there.

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I spent two adventure packed years in Nepal. Then my dad had a stroke back in Australia and I returned to care for him and to look for work. It was a difficult period in Victoria at the time, and finding work wasn’t easy. I did some part-time private care jobs while I searched.

During one of my dad’s specialist diabetes appointments, I met a professor who offered me a position as a clinical trials nurse working diabetes and osteoporosis.

That opened a whole new chapter.

I worked for the professor at the Austin for nine years, learning the essentials of setting up clinical drug trials. It was a steep learning curve, but my nursing background was once again the springboard.

Any development of a new drug takes years of testing through clinical trials. Their aim is to document patient outcomes to determine if the drug has any side effects, how long it takes to work, whether it works on everyone, how it interacts with other drugs etc.

Then there are all the legal, financial and logistics issues. Tests have to be set up for the patients to attend different hospital appointments, pharmacy, doctor reviews etc.

After around nine years in the job,  a rep for a small biotech company approached us to discuss an osteoporosis project they had in mind. Normally drug companies come in with all the paperwork and trials planned, but this one didn’t. I ended up developing the full submission for them, set their project up from scratch.

When it was finished, the company rang and asked me to work for them.

This company was researching the use of milk antibody treatments for a variety of gut problems.   My role was to set up all aspects of these trials. I stayed there for 4 years doing cow feeding and vaccination trials, setting up studies.  One of the highlights I remember was driving to Shepparton each week, to discuss the cow feeding trials with the farmers.

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Eventually however, I returned to Austin Hospital overseeing respiratory related trials for one of the professors I had worked alongside previously.

One of our projects was a surgical study researching a pacemaker type implant for severe snorers. The electrodes in the pacemaker would stimulate the tongue during sleep and make it thrust forward, so it no longer blocked the airway.

It was a brilliant product, but like many studies, ended up too expensive to thoroughly prove and be approved.

At that point, I still had a few years before I was able to retire. A friend showed me an online ad for a clinical trial based at the Eye & Ear Hospital in Melbourne University. It aimed to review the outcomes of routine treatments for chronic ear infections in Indigenous children.

After 16 years setting up clinical trials, this seemed a great way to roll my whole career into one grand finale.   It took in my years of ear health, clinical trials, my love of kids and my cross-cultural work experience.

It is well documented, but not publicized that 70% of Indigenous children in Australia have chronic hearing loss.

They come to the clinics with ruptured eardrums at a very young age, but not much can be done about re-occurence of ear infections. The recurrences cause significant scarring and lead to hearing difficulties and loss.

By the time these children start school, they are already at a disadvantage: they haven’t picked up their mother tongue well because they can’t hear properly. That makes it hard to pick up English, setting them further back. They struggle at school, drop out of school early and go on to have all sorts of problems – it is a major problem for their communities, as well as costing the government billions.

I’ve been working in this program for four years now. It runs in 9 hospitals across Western Australia, Northern Territory and Queensland.

We bring in Aboriginal children who need surgery for their infected ears and follow-up a year later.  We compare the outcomes of two different treatments.

Different doctors disagree over what actually works. Some surgeons are pro surgery, others against. However, in reality the outcomes  may depend on location, climate, or the microbiology of the child’s infections – so very hard to conclude on the one ‘right’ treatment.

Part of my job was to search around the country and find qualified local staff. I’ve done the hiring, set up contracts, visited hospitals and communities on a regular basis to negotiate with them to join the project and carry out project works. It’s a huge logistical task.

Ethics and regulatory approvals take a lot of time.

We’ve had to through seven Aboriginal and Health Ethics Committees. Each committee reviews a detailed description of the project, its goals and funding, how the hospital resources would be impacted.

You can’t do the research without going through all the paperwork and negotiations. Sometimes the committees reject projects or ask for adjustments, if they feel their community needs are not being met. We are lucky our project has largely had support throughout the country.

Now, I have retired.   My last task was helping to find and hire my replacement, handover and wish her well!

I had the skills to set the project up and the nurse replacing me has different skills, but I believe she has what it takes to see it to the end and help find the answers.

Next, I want to find a community project that I could voluntarily be involved with to keep my brain active. In the end, we all want to be useful and contribute to society.

One of my life’s lessons is that nursing, as much as I didn’t like it at the start, has been a great springboard. It used to be that you did your nursing training and had 5 or 6 career options – now, you have thousands; you don’t have to work in a hospital if you don’t want. It really is a platform you can use to step off to so many other things.

When I left as a newly trained nurse back in 1973, I never would have imagined living with hippies, doing cow food trials, driving buses through Nepal and managing a nationwide project with a 1.8 million dollar budget. It has been a phenomenal ride and it’s not over yet.

I think in life, with hindsight, we wish certain things hadn’t happened, but then realising how far we’ve come, we know it’s been good for us. Life is a training exercise. Life is a test. Some things haven’t been easy, but they’ve certainly been worth it!

One comment

  1. What an amazing and interesting life you’ve lead so far Sheila. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it.
    I have a quiet dream to one day do a trail involving aged care and nutrition or mental health and nutrition but to be honest the mass of hoops to jump through and mountains of paperwork scares me. Perhaps one day we could catch up for coffee and you could give me a real world view of what it takes 🙂


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