2020 Year of the Nurse & Midwife — Jackie and Helen’s Stories

Mark Aitken
You loved Jackie and Helen’s stories, so we asked them to join us on the podcast to celebrate nursing, midwifery, and their inspiring careers.
jackie and helen podcast cover


Listen to Episode 14

Our podcast is also available on:

Subscribe on Apple Podcasts Listen on Spotify

Podcast Details

Episode: 14
Guest: Jackie Shaw, Helen Pentecost
Duration: 31.15
Tags: International Year of the Nurse
SoundCloud: Episode 14 Jackie Shaw and Helen Pentecost


Happy International Year of the Nurse and Midwife from all of us at Nurse & Midwife Support.

As we kickstart 2020 the Year of The Nurse & Midwife, we are delighted to share this amazing podcast with Jackie and Helen, both members of the Nurse & Midwife Support team who have broad-reaching experiences in nursing and midwifery.

2020 year of nurse posterWe shared Jackie and Helens’ stories in 2019 as part of our celebration of International Nurses Day and International Day of the Midwife. You told us how much you loved reading their stories, so we thought we'd ask them to join us for a podcast to share more about their inspirational careers.

Jackie and Helen share insights, stories and pearls of wisdom about the joy and satisfaction of their chosen professions and being humbled by the fragility, strength and generosity of those they have cared for.

Jackie reflects on her 60-year career as a nurse and how humour, resilience and her ability to bounce back in the face of adversity has been key to her success and longevity. Jackie’s contribution to the nursing profession has been long and exceptional. From 1960’s London to drug and alcohol nursing in Australia, Jackie has pretty much seen it all. Her support for other nurses has made a difference to the careers of many of her colleagues and we hope that her story will inspire you too.

Like many of you, Helen has had a career with all sorts of twists and turns. From early beginnings in a Melbourne hospital to supporting other midwives and chasing green frogs out of a maternity ward in the Northern Territory, Helen has had a lot of adventures. Helen reflects on the personal impact of caring for a mother following the death of a baby and the importance of self-care.

Helen and Jackie remind us that nurses and midwives do just about anything to care for others. They tell their stories with humour, pathos and humbleness.

Jackie and Helen agree that Nurse & Midwife Support is an important service and they would have used the service many times throughout their long careers. They encourage any nurse or midwife who needs support to contact the service.

I hope you listen to the end of the podcast, where I ask Jackie to read my favourite part of her story. It still gives me goosebumps.

At Nurse & Midwife Support, we are in the business of supporting nurses and midwives. A big part of providing support is listening to your story. We also love to share stories and celebrate the AMAZING work you do.

Please share your story with us! Write to me at [email protected] if you have an inspirational story to tell and are happy for us to share it with our community as part of us continuing to celebrate nurses and midwives throughout 2020.

If you need support, call 1800 667 877 to share your story with a member of our qualified team. 

Your story matters! 

Mark Aitken RN
Stakeholder Engagement Manager
Nurse & Midwife Support


Mark Aitken: Hello! And welcome to the Nurse and Midwife Support podcast. Your health matters. I’m Mark Aitken, your podcast host for today. I’m the stakeholder engagement manager with Nurse and Midwife Support and I’m a registered nurse. Nurse and Midwife Support is the national support service for nurses, midwives and students. The service is anonymous, confidential and free. You can call us anytime about any issue you need support for: 1800 667 877. Or contact us via the website at nmsupport.org.au

My guests today are Jackie Shaw and Helen Pentecost. We’re celebrating Jackie and Helen’s stories as a part of celebrating the International Day of the Midwife and International Nurses Day. Those stories are available on our website. But, today, we get to speak to Jackie and Helen in person. So, hello, and welcome Jackie and Helen!

Jackie and Helen: Hi Mark.

-All laugh-

MA: Jackie, you’ve been a nurse for 60 years. Now, we think that that’s something worth celebrating. So, congratulations! And thank you so much for sharing your story with us. Jackie, what does 60 years as a nurse mean to you? 

Jackie Shaw: Well Mark, it really means a lifetime of meeting wonderful people, of fun and hard work. When I talk about meeting wonderful people, I mean patients as well as my colleagues. It’s taken me around the world, and it’s given me a whole lifetime of joy. I’m very proud to be a nurse.

MA: Thanks Jackie, and what an incredible career it’s been. We’ll hear some more about your career throughout the podcast. Helen, you haven’t been a midwife for quite as long as Jackie has been a nurse. Nevertheless, you have had an amazing career. What does being a midwife mean to you?

Helen Pentecost: Look, I think that being a midwife is such a privileged role. We’re present for one of life’s big experiences, such an intimate moment in a family’s life. Like Jackie, nursing and midwifery has been fun and enjoyable. Traumatic, dramatic and the ultimate privilege.

MA: Thanks Helen, and I think it is the ultimate privilege. Being a nurse or a midwife, for anyone who does it. Even people who don’t do it, I think that they see what we do as incredible because we’re the most respected profession and voted as such over and over again. So, I think that there’s a lot of good will out there, for nurses and midwives. A lot of respect and admiration. Hopefully we can share some of that with our listeners today, and hear more of their stories around all of that. Now, Jackie, your career started in 1960’s London. Some of our listeners wouldn’t have even been born then. I love this part of your story, and I’ll quote this from your story:

It was the start of the 60’s era: rock n’ roll was coming, miniskirts were new, stiletto heels were gorgeous, and the groups, bands, and jazz musicians were in all the coffee houses, jazz cellars, and night clubs...

Jackie, tell us about being a nurse while all of this was going on? How did you manage?

JS: Well I was a student nurse, of course, and it was very exciting. On the wards, it was just really really hard work. Quite frankly, I was learning so much that I really enjoyed the hard work in the wards. As soon as we got off duty, we didn’t have the 9 to 5 learning that they have now in the university structured careers, so we did shift work. Whenever we got off shift, there was a concerted effort to head for town. To go from the East End of London into the West End, hit the jazz cellars, hit the coffee houses …Nescafe was new then.

-All laugh-

It’s hard to believe now, isn’t it? We called ourselves the Nescafe generation. It was just, exciting and really lovely. I loved London. When I talk about we, I’m talking about the cohort of nurses that I was training with. There were 40 of us, so there was nearly always someone who was off duty at the same time as you. You’d make special friends, a group of you would meet after shift, usually up in the nurses’ home. We would all take off together, dressed up to the nines, with our stiletto heels and our mascara.


MA: Off to the coffee houses.

JS: It was just fun. It was great fun. It was quite a contrast, because in the wards we had the EastEnders and the people from the docks there. The sailors, the costermonger from the Cockney community, the people from the Jewish community (which was nearby), and a lot of people coming in on the ships. Sailors from places like Madagascar, India, it was a very mixed group of people in the wards that we were nursing and in the outpatients. Many of them were very poor, and quite uneducated. When we hit town, we were mixing with a whole different set of people. Musicians, the “elite” were all doing the same as we were, heading for the high life. So, it was really quite fascinating.

MA: So, a melting pot of life was there Jackie? From the sounds of it?

JS: Yes, absolutely. 

MA: It was on the back of the second world war in London. In your story, I really marvelled at that aspect. Of course, it takes a while to rebuild a city after a war like the second world war and the way that it hit that area. I guess you had people that were impacted by that, with mental health issues and issues relating to alcohol…

JS: Absolutely.

MA: …living in bomb sites?

JS: You’re spot on Mark. It was quite amazing to me. We had an outpatient house that included a psychiatric department. It was all brand new to me, I was very green. The psychiatrist would be taking people as outpatients into their little rooms (which were by no means soundproof) and doing therapy with them. These were survivors from the war. There was a couple of times when people were re-living, I think they had quite severe PTSD, and they were reliving their terrible and terrifying memories from their wartime experiences. Both civilian, and military. Some of them were returned defence force people, child soldiers as well as young sailors, wandering around and looking for jobs. They were incompetent I suppose, because of their mental health issues, and some were from the civilian population that had been bombed out over and over again. Evacuated, separated, half of their family killed. There was a lot of trauma after the war, and people were still recovering. Many of the people who came into the outpatient department had residual wounds that we were still treating. They weren’t terrible, by then, because this was 1958 and the war finished in 1945. By 1947 they were all coming back in, so it was nearly 10 years after the ceasefire, but there were still people who were still suffering. We were catching the tail end of it. I guess, because I was born during the war, to me this was just normal. I didn’t think it was anything unusual. Now, I realise that when people go overseas to work in warzones that they encounter all of these things. But it’s not the norm, but back then, it was the norm because this was post-war Britain.

MA: So, you’re a 20-year-old woman, a nurse who was doing this. That must have been pretty confronting Jackie, at that age? 

JS: There are some things that I’ll never forget. But we, we being the student nurses, we coped with it with humour. And the coppers had a wonderful sense of humour, they still have a wonderful sense of humour. We were living in the middle of Cockney territory, it was Whitechapel in East London. So, everyone spent their time making fun of things. Not making fun of the terrible things, but making fun of how you manage life thereafter. The jokes came thick and fast, even in the children’s ward, the cockney children’s mouths were filthy but their faces were angelic.

-All laugh-

The language was amazing, and that was all new to me as well. I learned a lot of street language. But it was the sense of humour that kept us going.

MA: I think that’s really important, isn’t it? That nurses and midwives value our sense of humour. I’ve never met a nurse or a midwife that couldn’t have a laugh. 

JS: That’s right, or share a joke with. 

MA: Exactly. Sometimes it does get a bit black, but that’s the way we go.

JS: That’s nursing, isn’t it?

-All laugh-

MA: Thanks Jackie, for taking us back to that time. It’s so interesting. Helen, you started your career training as a nurse, as many midwives do and have. Not everyone, some do direct entry into midwifery. It was in the country.

HP: Yes, I was in the first year of university students in Bendigo. 

MA: In rural Victoria?

HP: Yes, so one of Victoria’s bigger cities but still a country town. Very different, even though we straddled both the university and the hospital system, we spent a lot of time doing clinical work. But we also spent time in the university as well. Our clinical placements were up to 6 hours away. If you were like me, a mature age student, and having a part time job you could work Monday to Friday all over Victoria and then you’d have to pop home (four to five hours away) and whatever to do your evening job. For me, this was selling perfume at Myers. 

-Jackie laughs-

HP: I know, and I can’t stand perfume either. So yes, I started in Bendigo. Loved it. Lived there for three years. My parents happened to be living there at the same time. But once I finished being a student nurse, I moved to the city because all of the big stuff goes to the city. There were so many things that I felt that I wasn’t experienced enough doing. Mainly technical tasks, but there were things that I hadn’t learnt. So, I moved to the city and cracked on from there.

MA: Rural hospitals are such a big part of the local community. I’ve worked in a few of them and done training with some staff in rural hospitals. They strike me as being a real hub and epicentre for that community. I think that’s really important, and therefore everyone knows the nurses.

HP: Yes!

MA: So, what was that like? Going into the supermarket and people knowing you, because that wouldn’t necessarily happen in the city?

HP: No. And, look, I also have a very unusual surname. If people would see it written down, they would immediately associate me with my family. So, I couldn’t get away with anything. I was a bit of a naughty girl, and I really couldn’t get away with anything. People would see me and immediately go, “You’re the nurse.” Look, I loved it, because everyone knows everyone. But, you really did have to learn to behave a little bit more than what other people did in the cities. In the cities, you can get away with being one in hundreds and thousands of people. Out in the country, it’s a little bit different. 

MA: I think these early career stories are really pivotal, because they do form our career as a nurse bond. We often make lifelong friends from that time. Do you have any people from that time that you’re still connected with?

HP: Absolutely. My best-est friend in the whole wide world, Leanne. She lives in Queensland now. She and her now husband live in Queensland. They met at university, with me. 

MA: Both nurses?

HP: Both nurses. We’re still absolute lifelong buddies. The internet is an amazing thing. You keep up to date with people on Facebook. We started in one place, and we’ve travelled all across the country side. That’s the good thing about nursing, you can go anywhere and do anything. Morph into whatever you want it to be.

JS: That’s right.

MA: And those friends offer us a lot of support.

HP: Yes, definitely.

MA: They’re people that are having a similar experience to us. We can phone, or connect with through social media, or on email and say, “Hey, how are you going? This happened to me, and I just want to share it with you because I want to know what you think.”

HP: Yes.

MA: And we know that those people will know what we’re talking about.

HP: Absolutely. I think that’s one of the key things that we offer at Nurse & Midwife Support, the fact that we are all nurses or midwives: psychiatric nurses, ICU nurses, we all come from very different backgrounds but we all understand. People do contact us and talk about all sorts of things; from what wedding dress they should wear to what horrible death that they’ve just had on the ward. We will understand, because we are nurses and midwives.

MA: It’s very important to connect with that message of support, and how we support each other. Support is now only a phone call away, thanks to Nurse & Midwife Support: 1800 667 877. Jackie, you stepped into drug and alcohol nursing at a time when it wasn’t an area known to many nurses. It probably wasn’t that popular, for nurses to go into that area? So, what took you there?

JS: Well, really, it was a time when I was looking to get back into full time work after stepping out and doing agency work while I raised a family. A job was being offered at Saint Vincent’s, where I had done a lot of work before. Initially, it was as a casual group leader running drink drive courses. I thought that that would be a good way to get back into it, no shift work. I actually applied for the job and got it. I started in drug and alcohol, running courses for people who had been convicted of drink driving offences. The people that taught me the structure of how to run the drug and alcohol groups actually taught me about drug and alcohol. It went on from there, as I continued in that field. I found it absolutely fascinating. It connected with my prior career, which had been in neurological and neurosurgical nursing. I knew as soon as a person walked into the door, if they had neurological symptoms. If they were showing those symptoms, I knew it was due to alcohol, it nearly always was alcohol back in those days. So, I found it really just quite a normal thing to do, to move from brains and pathology and surgery to looking at people with brains and behaviour problems. Seeing that connection. So, I immediately loved it. It seemed right to me, to move into that area. When other jobs came up, that were full time, I continued with it.

MA: So interesting, Jackie. We hear from nurses and midwives who call us wanting support for issues that they have in relation to drug and alcohol abuse. What would you say to those nurses and midwives Jackie? Who might be out there, struggling with that issue, and have an element of shame around that and are wondering whether they should call us or not.

JS: I would say, don’t give up. Call us. We do understand. Many of us have been through several career changes. We totally know what it’s like to move from one area that you’re really comfortable and expert in to go into another area where you may have relatively little knowledge of. It’s not unusual, for a nurse to have to change careers two or three times in the course of their lives. It’s ok. Give us a call, we’d love to talk to you about it. The reality is, that most nurses do make transitions from one type of career into another as life progresses. As your life circumstances change, you can’t always stay in the same thing. Sometimes you just want to learn something new, sometimes you just need to move on because you can’t go on doing what you’re doing any longer and that’s fine. We would be happy to talk to you about that, anytime. 

MA: Thanks Jackie. Helen, you made a very considered and determined decision to become a midwife. I say that because you started doing midwifery and realised that it wasn’t the right time in your life. So, you stepped out of that, you did what you needed to do in your personal life. When the right time came along, for you to do midwifery, you started then. Tell us about your determination to become a midwife, and what drove you to become a midwife? 

HP: I fell into my previous role, in oncology, as a graduate. It was a fairly directed position. As a graduate, you’re told that you’ll go here, here and here. I just happened to stay where I was, which was in oncology. I stayed there on and off for up to 15 years. Did some bank and agency work along the way and had some children. My second child, my littlest chicken (as I refer to her), she was born with an acute brain injury from a birth-related injury. She was really in really poor shape at that stage, needed a full resuscitation and just wasn’t meeting mile stones as a little person. I had already started midwifery, at that stage. My midwife that had looked after me in labour had such a huge impact on how I birthed and how I laboured. I thought, I could do that, but it just wasn’t the right time with my daughter being unwell so I pulled out and continued to work as the Associate Charge Nurse on the ward that I was on. Still had that passion in the back of my mind, that I wanted to get back into midwifery. So, I did, when the time was right. When my daughter was a little bit older and able to be left, it probably wasn’t her, it was me. When I was able to leave her for longer periods of time I went into midwifery. I absolutely loved it, it was so much fun. It was very much a decision that I made, to do u-turn in the middle of the road. 

MA: Then you worked with some disadvantaged communities in midwifery. Could you talk about those communities and what took you in that direction?

HP: I’ve always loved working with marginalised populations, I like working with people who other people probably find a little bit too difficult. So, I took up a role working in drug and alcohol with women who were drug and alcohol dependant, had drug and alcohol problems, were sex workers, were people who really needed a little bit of extra time with their midwife. I loved it. I loved that kind of work. I really loved making a difference for people. I also worked out with the local Aboriginal community, helping those women get connected with their medical appointments and making sure that they felt confident and confident to go on and birth and look after their babies. I’ve always loved working with people who just needed that little bit of extra time.

MA: So rewarding. Helen, I really connected with the part of your story about delivering a Ute load of wood to keep a house (with a premature baby) warm. It reminded me that nurses and midwives do just about anything and everything. 

HP: They do.

MA: Was there a time in your career, having done all of this, where you needed support and you reached out?

HP: I think all nurses really do need the support. As a general rule, we’re really bad at asking for help. I think across the board, and certainly when I was coming through, no doubt for you as well Jackie, there was no clinical debriefing. There was no supervision. There were none of these things. There was nobody. If you didn’t have a family member that was a nurse…

JS: Correct. 

HP: …you’d have people tell you that they just don’t get it. Nursing is not a job, it’s a lifestyle. It’s our heart. It’s so different to a normal job. We didn’t have that formalised debrief stuff. People used to go and prop up a bar. You’d have a horrible shift and you’d find all of the nurses down at the pub instead. This is not therapeutic, at all. So yes, look, there have been numerous times that I would’ve liked somebody to have a debrief with. I had a shift once in a labour and delivery ward where five babies died on one night.

JS: Oh my god.

HP: Three triplets, and two single miscarriages. That’s the sort of night shift where you’d go home at 7am and be expected to sleep. Of course, those little babies are still in your brain. They’re still hovering around in the bedroom with you. It would’ve been a really good thing for me, all of those years ago, to be able to just call somebody and say, “I have had the worst shift imaginable. Let me just unload on somebody.” Equally, when you do something fabulous, you have a great shift and you go home. You know, those grads who call us and are so proud that they’ve done everything? We want to hear the good stories as well. We don’t want to just hear the bad stuff. 

MA: Absolutely. If you want to call us to share any story, or any issue that needs a conversation, we’re here 24/7. Jackie, what have you done in your very long career that you would never have expected to have done? Go back to the 18-year-old Jackie, about 60 years later, is there something that stands out and makes you think, “Gee wiz. I would never have thought that I would have done that in my life.”

JS: I suppose at the beginning I never would have thought that I’d have gotten into drug and alcohol. But somewhere along the way, I also did some domiciliary nursing as part of agency nursing when I was raising children. Going into some of those homes was just the most amazing thing. I did things in there that I would have never thought possible. Cleaning out rats and mice from a kitchen, so that you could actually get a cup of tea that was not contaminated and make something to eat for the person that you were supposed to be there to look after.

MA: That is amazing. 

HP: That sounds impressive. 

MA: Most nurses and midwives would think that they would never do that.

JS: Maybe now, I don’t know. When you’re in someone’s home and there’s mice droppings everywhere, you have to do something. Another one was going into a Jewish home where somebody had had a stroke. They had an episode. At the end of the shift, I’d cared for the person and we called the doctor. We did all of the right things. At the end, I was sitting, writing my report at the kitchen table. I asked the wife if she minded if I had a cigarette. I used to smoke in those days, I don’t encourage it nor do I do it now, but that’s what it was back then. This was in the 80’s. She didn’t say a word, she brought out an ash tray in front of me and said, “Thank you very much nurse.” And left me. Afterwards, I found out that it was a very strictly orthodox Jewish household and I had actually contravened their laws. It was a weekend, it was Sabbath. No one should have had a cigarette in the house, but they had allowed it because there was an allowance in the old testament for dire circumstances. I just felt, awful.

-HP Laughs-

JS: I thought afterwards, “God I would have never done that, if I had known.” So that’s something I never would have thought that I would have done. That I would have gone against someone’s social morae’s and concerns, but I did. Anyway, they forgave me.


MA: Well, that’s what we come across. Those things in our careers, where we learn from having done it.

JS: We do, definitely. 

MA: Those times where you think to yourself, “I’ve learned from that and I won’t do it again.” 

JS: Definitely not.


MA: Now, it struck me from reading both of your stories, that resilience has been a big part of your success. Would you agree with that? Firstly, you Helen. If yes, what does resilience mean to you?

HP: Look, I think resilience is something that’s just so important to all nurses. We’re confronted with the most amazing things that normal people …well. “Normal” people, you know what I mean, that people don’t know about. We see people at their best and at their worst. In life-changing experiences; birth and death, incredible disability….

JS: Terrible injuries.

HP: Yes! So, I think you learn very very early on that you can do anything. Nurses can do anything. From that very first needle where, I remember putting a needle into somebody’s bottom and not having the needle attached to the syringe properly and…


HP: …leaving the needle behind in the bottom and having the syringe in my hand thinking, what do I do?! I learned very quickly, to just do it. 

MA: Bounce back.

HP: Bounce back and smile, and just remind yourself that you won’t do that again. Like your smoking story.

MA: Jackie, would you add anything to that? 

JS: I totally endorse everything that Helen just said. I think that resilience is just a core thing that you need to hang onto. If you haven’t got it, you need to learn to develop it. Learn the skills that give you the confidence to be able to bounce back after everything because you’re worth it! To be quite honest, nurses can do everything and do do everything.

HP: Yes, absolutely

JS: And you have the right to be doing that as well.

MA: Well, I can’t believe we’re almost at the end of this podcast! Time flies when you’re speaking to two inspirational guests and when you’re hearing stories about a career of over 60 years, it’s been a very long and prestigious career. There is something in your story Jackie, that really touched me. I wonder if you’d be happy to read it as we finish? Our listeners can read about this in Jackie’s story, well, of course they’d read it after this podcast.


JS: Thank you Mark. Well, I say this now, I’m reading it but in fact I do mean it:

I am a nurse, I’m proud of it, and when I die I will be a dead nurse. It is my craft, profession and identity — but I’m also an AOD nurse and a counsellor. I have the incredible privilege of working with the Nurse & Midwife Support program, which allows me to share time with the generations of nurses who follow me, and perhaps to give back some of what has been given to me: a lifetime of learning, and satisfaction.

When I wrote those words, I meant every bit of them and I still do to this day.

HP: That’s beautiful Jackie. It’s so beautiful.

MA: Thanks so much for sharing Jackie, for sharing your story. And thank you Helen for sharing yours. 

HP: Pleasure. 

MA: I know that nurses and midwives will really enjoy and benefit from this podcast. If you found this podcast useful, please share it with other nurses, midwives and students. Please call us anytime that you need support: 1800 667 877. I’ll speak to you next time.

Thank you to AusMed for their generosity in making the editing of this podcast possible.