Friday 28th August commemorates a golden anniversary in the South Australian opal mining town of Andamooka. It is 50 years to the day since the Andamooka hospital was opened, a facility built and staffed by the Australian Inland Mission (AIM) and continued to this day under the AIM’s successor, Frontier Services.
The opening of Andamooka hospital on 28 August 1965 began an era of life-saving medical care for the residents of the isolated mining town. Andamooka hospital was one of many built by the AIM as a means of bringing basic services to geographically isolated people.
As conceived by its first superintendent Rev Dr John “of the Inland” Flynn, the AIM was a vehicle to bring a “Mantle of Safety” to the people of remote Australia. “Safety” in Flynn’s mind was a broad term applied to the well-being of the people of the Inland. It took many forms; pastoral counselling, medical care, an outback radio network, pen pals and literature, as well as the world’s first Flying Doctor service.
The AIM hospital in Andamooka was a triumph of meticulous planning and logistics, overcoming distances and desert heat, till the day Frontier News could report; “Andamooka outpost hospital is now a going concern”.
The first full-time staff were AIM nursing sisters, Margaret Burrows and Amelia Howden. Together, they had travelled from Hobart to Adelaide where they stayed for three weeks provisioning for the trip to Andamooka.
The shopping list included “furniture, linen, crockery, medical equipment, hospital drugs and supplies, kitchen utensils, groceries, brooms, and a hundred other necessities to set up the hospital.” Once in Andamooka there were hectic days completing the fit-out before the doors opened for business.
The Sisters were much appreciated by the locals. Trade was brisk. “Patients have been coming and going and there are so many exciting episodes of these early weeks that we cannot find words to relate them.” they wrote in letters “brim full of adventures which one day will surely make another pioneering best-seller.”
Of particular note is this entry from 1965: “We had a very sick baby in and the Doctor wanted to have special drugs which we did not have. We knew Colonel Honeysett was to be here at 11am, so we told Doctor and he radioed the police in Woomera who chased after the Colonel’s car with the drugs. So, great drama on the Woomera—Andamooka road! The baby, which was almost dead on arrival, was revived and was later flown to Port Augusta where recovery was complete.”
Five months in Frontier News published the following statistics for Andamooka- “36 In-Patient Cases, 133 In-Patient Day-beds, 873 Out-Patient Cases, 1,146 Out-Patient Treatments.” Those first months were busy on the opal fields and secured the reputation of the nurses as angels of the outback.
The opal miners showed their appreciation in kind by building the Sisters “a smart new fowl run, complete with hen house and six new hens. After the Sisters had painted it they declared it “smart enough to use as a weekender.”
Fifty years later, the hospital is known as the Andamooka Community Health Service and Clinic. The incumbent nursing sister is Diane Bilka (nee Bartlett). She arrived in 1981 and later married local miner, Stefan Bilka. Diane has the unique distinction of being Frontier Services longest serving employee.
Diane said that she found her vocation to become an outback nurse when as a girl she met the formidable Sister Frances McKechnie, the head of AIM nursing. She studied nursing and joined the AIM.
When a position in Andamooka became vacant, Diane said, “I jumped at the chance. I came for one year and loved it. Both the community and the type of work. And so stayed on for a second year.” The rest is history.
Back in the 1980s nurses were required to sleep at the clinic. While it is less formal nowadays, nurses need to be within 20 minutes reach of the clinic. “Before mobile phones if you wanted to go out somewhere in the evening or the weekend, you’d leave a note on the clinic door saying exactly where you were and if necessary, directions so people could find you in an emergency.”
DETAILS: Today’s Andamooka dedicated staff includes Nurses: Diane Bilka, Vicki Finzel, Diane Williams; Commonwealth HomeSupportProgram: Angela Lafferty, Bronwen West, Karen Gow, Ngaire Sheridan, Angela Lamb; and Volunteers: Sylvia Hobbs, Ali Malekas and Jennifer Moylan.
To Celebrate the Andamooka Hospital’s Golden Anniversary Mr Glenn Price, Transition General Manager, Frontier Services will be hosting a reception and presentation at the Hospital this Friday 28th August at 3 pm. Lot 33, Hospital Rd, Andamooka.
Further Anniversary celebrations will take place at the CFS Shed in Andamooka on Saturday 29th of August. There will be a Bush Dance and live music.