Contagion Then and Now 1967-2020

Contagion Then and Now 1967-2020

My story of Isolation: Looking Back 50 Years to 1969

I was looking forward to enjoying the sunshine of many Autumnal days. Awakening to a cool morning! Sunshine making the variety of green leaves shine in my tiny backyard whilst picking the last of the tom-thumb tomatoes ripening red, and listening to the distant hum of the busy cars hurrying to get to their destinations. Another special autumn day!

Deciding not to listen to the doom and gloom of the radio presenters broadcasting more government decisions about the Coronavirus or problems with the public fighting over toilet paper, I took my book and hot coffee, warming myself by the sunshine; going outside to enjoy the day.

A day to reminiscence! Thinking back on times tucked back into my memory just flowing through my mind when a call from my daughter, checking on me, there came a blinding flash of that day in 1969 where the world of our happy family changed unexpectedly, immediately, no longer under my control. A day my family, my home and my well-being were changed.

Diamond Creek was then a small country village, everyone knew each other, the children were a happy group and everyone heard their calls of joy ringing around the hills. Having a car then was a luxury, and everyone was happy to help each other in any way possible. A year we survived the devastating bushfire which took homes and livelihoods but joined the community together, and where the kindergarten, for our family, was the focus.

It was a year of Government health warnings; vans were in the town checking everyone to see if they could have TB or be carriers, people were lining the street, hustled together, entering the dark van with weird noisy equipment, each looking at one another, wondering.

It was also a year of mass injecting of our community for fear of a flu epidemic; when the kindergarten committee was advised to be immunised, as well as the kindergarten children.

This is the year I was remembering - 1969. Where a boom of children in Diamond Creek in 1969; where parents planning for the future of a small town, where their children had a place at the kindergarten, primary school and sporting clubs being planned. A place where everyone helped one another. All in the same boat. Money was scarce. And the family unit included those far and nearby, even our neighbours.

In our happy home, days went smoothly; getting ready for cooler days and cleaning the briquette heater while always listening to the bellbirds whose exquisite call surrounded the area; a symbol of Diamond Creek. The children ate their breakfast watching the birdlife - the kookaburras being fed on the wire fence outside - gobbling their food, eager to join their mates outside, to once again brooming their toy cars in the dirt. Games boys play!

Diamond Creek in 1969 was a family of women, the men worked long hours, travelling far from home; the women were the homemakers and supported one another.

It was the year my happy four-year-old Peter started kindergarten. The fees for attending kindergarten were high and many could not afford to send the children but by scrimping and scraping, this was Peter’s year. Andrew, my sweet two-year-old was happy to be pushed around to see Peter and the other twenty children, then happily wave goodbye at the Memorial Kindergarten gate. We would return home via the corner shop where he would get a treat, before being put down for his morning sleep - a routine he was happy to submit, and which gave me time for myself and my special neighbours who would pop over for a cup of tea and a chat.

As most years around this time, my health became a problem, but with our special doctor only a mile away, my friends, if they could, would take the boys and I would walk on the dirt roads and footpaths, over the train line to see a caring doctor for medical help. Imagine my delight when in early 1969 when was told I was going to be a mother once again. Joyously wishing to share my happiness - in Diamond Creek we didn’t have telephones - I returned home and hugged my boys, my world, and told them the news. My girlfriends around me happily enjoying my glow. But I was, as always, somewhat out of breath, and wishing to have a rest.

I couldn’t wait for my husband, Cliff, to return home from work, always after dark, tired but smiling, to share the news. We celebrated, smiled and planned. Only two bedrooms, must keep up the payments to our health insurance, making budgets, and the days ambled on through autumn. Kindergarten and happy days continued, but my health always a problem. My world of happy, healthy children, doctor’s appointments and our weekly drive to Greensborough to buy our shopping were continuous, but I was increasingly relying on the support of my girlfriends as I found the days colder and the nights longer. Cliff worked long, but when he could, he took on many of the household chores. Although we had a large extended family, Diamond Creek was country to them and without transport, families either working or caring for their children were miles away, I could not call of them. Mum was not well either so I did not worry her. The family home where mum and dad lived was Mahoneys Lane, Keon Park. Dirt road, no car, no electricity and most of all, too difficult to get to Diamond Creek except by taxi, and in 1969 money was always a problem to all.

Days went by and Dr Cordner could no longer find ways to help. My breathing, my pregnancy and loss of weight, my fatigue were all worrying him. So after my consultation in June, he told me to go home and pack an overnight bag; he was going to put me into Diamond Valley Community Hospital for tests. “Only overnight or maybe the next day,” he said.

Money was tight but we had been able to keep the payments to HBA medical insurance. I only had to think of how to pay the excess of one hundred pounds. Our nest egg for when our new baby came had to be used. After work, Cliff drove me to the hospital, our precious boys were dressed in their pj’s and dressing gowns and wrapped in warm rugs. We travelled the miles singing and talking, trying not to worry them.

So alone in a room of my own in the Greensborough Community hospital feeling tired and sad, climbing into a bed with crisp sheets that I didn’t have to make, I waited thinking, “What comes next?” No time or energy to pack more than my nightclothes, hairbrush and toiletries. Not prepared for this.

I knew the Hospital well and its wonderful staff. This was where our baby boys were born and our next baby was to come into the world. It was bustling, busy, where the nurses wore snowy white aprons, dazzling white caps on their heads and where they made me feel warm and safe.

Dr Cordner came late into my room, chiding me that I hadn’t finished the substantial home-cooked meal the hospital was known for I had left untouched on my plate. He sat on the bed telling me that the next day I was to have blood tests and an X-ray and, depending on the results, he would see me tomorrow night. And I would be home the next morning where he would make sure I had the best of care. “Bed rest, hot food and sleep” were his prescription. He left me to my thoughts.

Although I was only just four months pregnant, my weight loss meant I had a lovely tummy which I stroked and cradled humming to my baby trying to allay what fears I felt with tears streaming down my face. I finally slept. Only fitfully breaking through my sleep when the nursing staff creaked opened my doors, shining their torches around to make sure I was OK.

Breakfast smelt good but I was too worried to eat! “What were Cliff and the boys doing?” “What was going to happen to me today?” “What has Cliff’s work said to him about taking this time off work to look after the family?” Round and round. These thoughts whirled around. Jobs were not easy to obtain in 1969 and everyone was fearful for their jobs - mortgages to pay and families to feed.

I couldn’t get warm although the bed had heaps of blankets. I was coughing so bad. My baby was restless and so was I. Mid-morning, the smiling nurse reassured me and said I would soon be returning to my bed, then carefully wheeled me in a wheelchair down the long corridor for an X-Ray. The indignity of using a wheelchair! With patience, she assured me it was policy. Lecturing myself, I remembered I had plenty of these X-rays; only earlier in the year I an X-Ray at Diamond Creek in the TB van, so this was nothing new, but I do hate blood tests!

Back to my lonely room, Cliff was advised not to come with the boys as Dr Corner wished for me to have as much rest as I could, no visitors, just me and my sorrowful thoughts. “How were we going to cope, I just had to get my energy back, I had had two children without any problems?” The day was broken by meals and nurses asking me if I needed anything, but all I could hear were the cries of the newborns, joyful music to me. They had put me in the maternity ward with other mothers to be, around the corner from the glassed-in newborn baby room. “Could it be that these cries filled my baby with joy also as baby jumped and rolled the whole day through?”

It was again dark when Dr Cordner arrived after finishing his home visits in Diamond Creek. I couldn’t tell what calamity was to befall our young family by his demeanour or his facial expression. Calmly, he took my hand and told me what was going to happen. He told me how he had been in touch with the Health Department and on my behalf had done his best for me, the baby and the family. He told me that my X-rays showed I had tuberculosis disease and I was to be isolated from the community, my family and everyone; how the Health Department wanted me to go to Heatherton Sanatorium TB unit, many miles away from my family, and it was not where he wished for me and my baby to go. I went into shutdown. I heard Dr Cordner talking and saw his moving his lips but I did not understand.

Shivering and shaking I tried to understand what he was telling me and what was going to happen to me and my baby. Crying tears, not sure if they were his or mine, he went on to explain that I could not stay in this community hospital, that I was to be isolated and he was making sure I could be admitted to Austin Hospital which had a sanatorium for the treatment of members of the community which had tuberculosis disease. My regime was to have Mantoux screening test and until they were showing negative for six tests I was to stay at in the Health Department TB Ward at the Austin Hospital.

Crying, I told him I had had the tests and they were never positive, I was yelling that my asthma and breathing problems were mistakenly read. I said it was only that I was exhausted, that the coughing was just my asthma cough which I had a least three times a year since I was a child. I kept on and on but he shook his head. I clearly remember he said, “It is out of my hands now,” the Health Department was in charge and for the health of my family and the community, I was to be taken to the Austin Hospital. And when it was time for my baby to come into the world I was to be transferred to a special unit at the Women’s Hospital where my baby was to be taken from me.

Dr Cordner then told me he was going back to Diamond Creek to tell Cliff the news and I would be taken the next day by ambulance to Austin Hospital to remain until I was cured. He left me alone. Blackness and dread came over me, as well as guilt. Had I given this disease to my family? I was in a maternity hospital, had I given it to anyone else? My family, my baby, what was to become of us? I couldn’t stop my tears, my body shivering from head to toe, my nightdress a tangle.

That night my room was invaded by people dressed top to toe in white, gloves, face masks, nobody talking. My guilt increased, my doom went deeper. “Cliff had the children to think of, what was he to do, when was I going to see my family again, or play with my boys?” “How could this happen?” My mind went round and round, deeper and deeper were my thoughts as I tried to understand.

Cliff came the next morning, both of us hugging and crying. While telling me Dr Cordner had arranged for us to go to the Hospital in the family car and not an ambulance, my wonderful neighbours were looking after the boys. Stressing they were well while trying to understand why Mum was staying in hospital and not at home with them, Cliff told them “She is being looked after by the doctors!”

A bit of light came into my world when my husband told me he had packed some of my goods into the car and had even thought to put a photo of the boys in there. The time it took to travel from Greensborough to Heidelberg was like a lifetime of memories, talking, planning, crying, but all too soon we were there.

Alone again! Now in an unfamiliar cold sterile hospital with my thoughts and my baby, my small bag of my life held close. Put into a square room of my own, without a window, walls coloured stone white and formidable instruments arrayed around. My only outlook was to the nurse’s station and even that was dim and grim. I was given a bell to ring if I needed them. I felt so small, insignificant, and the only thing comforting me was my baby, happily kicking, and unaware of the dreadful surroundings of our new home.

My fears for my baby were tantamount to the worst imaginable. “What will the treatment do?” “Already X-rays and medication, more than I had ever taken previously, had been administered to me and the baby. What effect were they having on my ability to protect and nurture this child?” I had to believe I was in the best possible place for both of us. I had to believe my family were well and that we all had the ability to, as a family, get over this calamity. I had to remain calm and take all administered to me and improve in every way as quick as I could! Home with my family was my total focus!

The months went onwards, Oh my wonderful family. On a day’s notice, my youngest, only two-years-old, was taken in and nurtured by my mum and dad in Mahoneys Lane - not too far from Diamond Creek so my husband could visit as much as possible. My wonderful big sister opened her heart and home to my big boy who was four-years-old; old enough to understand he was taken from his mum and dad to a new home. No kindergarten, no boys around the neighbourhood to play with and without his brother. Oh, how it was breaking my heart! But the boys, to my delight, adapted to the love and care, and Peter was encouraged to write me messages by my nieces which I still cherish; scraps of paper which held me together during my time of isolation.

Time passed and it was December. Although I had had six negative tests I was living in a community of people who, like me, had been detained by the Health Department. Some patients with and some without TB, and in the wisdom of the medical field, I was being cared for and rested at the Austin. Still not allowed to bring visitors into the Hospital, I was, occasionally, able at the weekend to go home and see my husband who tried to understand my deep gloom - and also the WHY! WHY! WHY! However, I was so frail, so skinny and bony I couldn’t sit on any chairs for pain the bones under the taught skin were sticking into me. Told I looked like a skeleton, I was not coping very well and secretly wished for the protection of hospital to fold around me so I didn’t have to think of the future.

By the last week in December, I was sent home for good. We were told I hadn’t had TB but I was still seriously ill and was to go to the Women’s Hospital for the safe birth of my unborn child. Joyously, I was going home to my family, two handsome boys who had grown taller, stronger and wishing never to leave my side, and to a husband who looked so stressed but was trying to help in every way. There was a mountain of appetizing home-cooked food and goodies from my wonderful neighbours. I was back in Diamond Creek with my family! 

My baby, on the other hand, thrived. Growing daily! Kicking, supported so high under my ribcage that I resembled a large ball with stick-figure arms and legs so when I coughed the baby bounced up and down.

Dr Cordner was a regular home visitor all December; always being there for us. The end of 1969 was near and I was growing weaker, He was carrying his worry on his shoulders, always trying to be positive and encouraging, but on 29 December 1969 he made a decision: I was not waiting until January 6th to go to Women’s Hospital as mandated, but he was going to induce me at Greensborough Community Hospital that day! Again, bag packed. Children taken back to be with the family.

We quietly drove to the Hospital, this time for a wondrous outcome, the safe birth of our baby. My husband was told to go home, as was the custom of hospitals at that time. After many hours in a room of my own, always coughing (Dr Cordner did not leave the hospital but was too worried to stay in the room), I found my time devoid of everything and I concentrated on my baby. Then a special nursing sister was given to me and she stayed by my side always. Encouragement, kindness and soothing words flowed around me as the time stretched my imagination and anxiety lessened for the safe arrival. I am still not sure if this emergency hospitalization was only because my health was deteriorating or Dr Cordner was concerned my special baby could still be whisked away from me as every minute I was wracked with coughing. I couldn’t breathe. So vivid is this today, it catches my breath. ​30th January 1969 arrived and our beautiful baby daughter arrived safely, crying heartily, completing our family.


March 2020 Reflection
That was fifty years ago, crisis overcome. Since then many new challenges have been thrown upon me, both sad and joyful times; family, friends and community working together. Supporting one another will again help me, my family and our community to triumph over this new contagion, Covid-19.


Mary Renshaw March 2020 ©