Sister Jan Quinell-Hughes celebrates 50 years of nursing

CARING: Sister Jan Quinell-Hughes with Willow Le Fevre at the Priceline Pharmacy Cessnock baby clinic, and inset, in her days with the NSW Ambulance Service.
CARING: Sister Jan Quinell-Hughes with Willow Le Fevre at the Priceline Pharmacy Cessnock baby clinic, and inset, in her days with the NSW Ambulance Service.

Many people in Cessnock simply know her as 'Sister Jan', the nurse from the baby clinic at Priceline Pharmacy.

But Jan Quinell-Hughes's career took her to many interesting places before she arrived at the Cessnock pharmacy in 2000.

Jan started her nursing career on October 17, 1969 - 50 years ago this Thursday - at the Prince Henry (Prince of Wales) Hospital in Sydney.

She went onto become a midwife, a flight nurse, an ambulance officer - the first female full-time paramedic in Sydney, in fact.

She has worked everywhere from doctor's surgeries, to city and country hospitals, an Aboriginal reservation and the air and road ambulance - "everywhere but sea", she says.

She moved from Sydney to Armidale in 1975, where she was the Far West officer for the Aboriginal reserve; then went onto work at Boggabri Hospital where she worked with one doctor and two nurses aides, doing "a bit of everything" including helping with ambulance transitions - which whet her appetite for her next career move.

Back in Sydney, Jan applied to be an ambulance officer in 1978, but was rejected due to the height and weight restrictions (at five-foot-two, she was considered to be four inches too short).

Not to be deterred, she joined the Air Ambulance instead.

"I thought, I'll give it five years," she said.

"I had motion sickness every day, and I applied for a lateral transfer every month."

It was exciting, unpredictable and memorable work.

"Often the flight nurse would go into the country hospital to stabilise and prepare critical patients for the long flight to a major Sydney Hospital, especially premature babies requiring transportation in humidicribs where a paediatrician also was part of the retrieval," Jan recalled.

"This process would take hours, depending on the distance from Sydney, and also weather conditions, such as storms or headwinds.

"Most flights would involve only the nurse with five patients on board."

She worked with the State Emergency Service in north-west NSW, and on one occasion, delivered a baby in a flood rescue boat while a snake was trying to get on board.

"That part was frightening," she said.

Jan also worked at most of the major Sydney hospitals with "hundreds of brilliant people", including two of Australia's "national treasures", Dr Victor Chang and Professor Fred Hollows.

She attained her Advanced Life Support qualification in 1980 while working as a flight nurse on the NSW Air Ambulance. This allowed her to perform many of the paramedic protocols in the air.

And every chance she had, she would spend a training day on the intensive care ambulance as "third officer".

In 1983, she received the exciting news that Equal Opportunities had abolished the height and weight restrictions, and her application to be an ambulance officer was finally accepted.

In 1984 she was transitioned onto the intensive care ambulance team at Summer Hill, then into headquarters at Quay Street, Sydney.

Through her work in the NSW Ambulance Service, Jan met her beloved husband Don Hughes (a fellow ambulance officer), who sadly passed away two years ago this week.

Jan finished up with the ambulance service in 1988 and worked as an agency nurse on the Central Coast for eight years.

"This was interesting, as you never quite new where you would be from day to day, until the agency called and allocated your destination," she said.

Seeking a tree-change, the couple and their daughter Toni moved to the Cessnock area in 1996, and Jan continued her caring line of work, transporting children with special needs to schools around the Lower Hunter.

When the pharmacy (then Amcal) opened in the new Cessnock City Centre in 2000, she started the baby health clinic, and over the past 19 years, the clinic has grown to offer wound care, diabetes management, vaccinations and many more services.

Jan has met hundreds of local families through her work at the pharmacy; some from the early days are now bringing in babies of their own.

She said she has met lots of wonderful people throughout her "lifetime dream" career as a nurse.

"I am so fortunate to have had such a fulfilling and rewarding career where I gained much knowledge and a wealth of experience which gave me the privilege to care for thousands of patients of all ages and nationalities for the past 50 years," she said.

And even after 50 years, she still learns something new every day.

"I'll go home and read for two hours every night," she said.

"Things are changing all the time."

Now 67, she has scaled back to four days a week, but doesn't have any plans to retire soon.

"I've always given 110 percent," she said.

"I've worked too hard to talk to the plants all day."