Humans of Aura
Angela Sawyer: It is very special to be a palliative care nurse
I am German and came to live in Australia when I was 38. I was the youngest of 10 children and was born in 1945 in the German state of Prussia that is now Poland. Mine was a big family and I had very strong parents. We lived in a little village called Damerau near the Baltic Sea and I was actually born in a bunker because the war was on and the Russians were coming through so my father built the bunker to hide us. My father was never a soldier but a farmer who had lost his right arm in a farming accident.
My family had 36 hours’ notice to leave Prussia for West Germany or we had to become Polish. My father had the paperwork on the table but he just couldn’t sign them because he was German and a German doesn’t become Polish! One of my father’s brothers had money and he paid a train driver to take us to West Germany. We were on the border with Russia so the train could have gone either to Russia or West Germany - it was a blessing for my family that we ended up in West Germany.
I grew up south of Stuttgart in Schwabenland which is beautiful. I went to school there until I was 13 then I worked in an orphanage because I wanted to become a nurse. Being a nurse is all I wanted to do but I needed some sort of pre-training as in Germany you could not start as a nurse until you were 18. I became a nurse and I always worked as a hands-on nurse.
I came to Australia in 1985 - my English was very poor as I never studied English at school. I wanted to become a community nurse and work in palliative care in private homes so I knocked on the door of a big house that was the community nursing centre in Glebe Point Road, Sydney. I never phoned because I would never have understood a word on the phone. The secretary answered the door and I said ‘I am Angela, I am from Germany, I have done nursing training. I want to work here’ and she just laughed and got the matron who said in very good broken German-English ‘You go first and make your examination to become a nurse in Australia.’ I said ‘Ok ok’ and off I went and I learnt heaps of medical words in English and could say ‘where is the pain? where is not the pain?’
After I passed my examination, I went back and knocked on the door again and matron asked me in the interview ‘why do you want to be a nurse?’ I replied: ‘I am just the best nurse and you will never regret it when you employ me’. After the interview she said she would let me know in two weeks and I thought I would never hear from her again, but on the same day she rang and said: ‘Angela, we could never overlook you as you are so determined and you will have the job’. So I was employed as a community nurse covering other centres when nurses where on holiday leave so I got to know the metropolitan area of Sydney very well.
I would never have had the opportunities in nursing I had if I did not come to Australia. And Australia is my country without a doubt. When my first husband and I divorced, my family said ‘come home to Germany as you have no one in Australia’ but I told my family I could not go back to Germany as I loved this country and the people here. I just love it here. In Australia, you don’t have to be perfect you just have to work hard.
In my private life away from nursing after my divorce I was determined to marry again so I joined a bushwalking club, ballroom dancing, dinner for six, singles club. And you wouldn’t believe what you experience in that! I met Fred through a newspaper after I read this little sentence from him: ‘I am over 50 and enjoy the theatre, nice dinners, bushwalking and seeking a woman 40-plus.’ And that hit me ‘seeking woman 40-plus’ because when I read most of the advertisements they wanted a professional woman, a woman with no children, a woman with no occupation or they were always asking something of the woman. But this man didn’t ask anything, so I rang him and we met and a week later I moved into his house.
I was 48 at the time and knew I had nothing to lose, if it’s meant to be it is meant to be. Fred has three children and I never had children, so we lived in Sydney and got married very quietly. And now we have been married 23 years. We bought an apartment but Fred was working so hard in Sydney and I thought if I want him longer I have to take him out of here because I felt it was unhealthy. So in 2002 we moved to Queensland to the Sunshine Coast and built a lovely house and were happy.
Then one day I said to Fred ‘I have had enough, I don’t want a garden anymore, I want to go into an apartment’. But then in the apartment building no one knew me and the stairs became more difficult for me. Our building also had a lift but I had to always clean the lift as it wasn’t clean enough for me and the other resident wouldn’t put their rubbish and recycling in the right place – I am German so I couldn’t live with myself there. We would pass The Avenue Maroochydore every day and I became a bit jealous of the people who lived there and Fred said ‘isn’t that a beautiful building?’ So one day in 2020 we went in just for a look and we never wanted to leave. We love it so much.
After working in Sydney roughly 15 years in community health and palliative care I worked for Blue Care at Caloundra for over 10 years as a palliative nurse. Nursing was my profession for 47 years. I’ve always loved nursing and never regretted a minute of it.
Being a palliative care nurse for me was very rewarding, it was my favourite part of nursing. It is very special to be a palliative care nurse in the patient’s private home when you are everything to the whole family. You are a nurse, a counsellor, a friend, a spiritual person as much as they want you to be, you encourage them. I really loved that. I often cried later in the car, particularly when you nurse children and some who were six years old, but I never ever wanted to do anything else.
Families would say to me ‘when you came in through the door the sun shone, there was light in the house’. I think it was because I had a real passion for nursing and I could feel the patient’s pain – it sounds silly now – but I could really feel the pain of others. I would often pray in the car on the way. When I’d go into the house, like that of the six-year-old, I’d ask the Lord to give me the right words. You can’t be a palliative nurse if you don’t have something special. I have a friend Leanne and you can feel how good she is as a palliative nurse by the way she talks to people. It’s a different way to talk and I think it’s very, very special.
A palliative nurse also needs a lot of happiness in themselves and they need to be able to leave everything always behind them as they close the door. That’s what a good nursing school will teach you from the beginning. When I was 17 in training the nuns taught me that. When you close the door that’s the finish of your nursing, leave it there and don’t bring it home. Of course, at home, I was on call and at two o’clock in the morning you would get a call that someone had died, someone was in pain, or a family needed support. But it was an amazing job that I never regret it and never regret coming to Australia.
At Aura Holdings we are privileged to have so many wonderful residents living in our villages. We thank devoted nurse Angela Sawyer, a resident of The Avenue retirement community at Maroochydore, for sharing her story with us.