Memories of old nursing days rekindled

At the high tea with the Minister of Welfare, Community Wellbeing, Women, Family and Childhood Development, Dato Sri Fatimah Abdullah (fifth from right, back row) and the Sarawak Women’s Council. The group of the earliest batch of midwives and nurses are at the front row, from second left: Monica Lime Bakar, Catherine Likup, Catherine Nanang, Hajah Hajijah Haji Ibrahim, Dayang Aminah Abang Jas, Baun Balan, Asong Lenjau and Emily Lee Shui Eng.

SHE almost jumped off her chair in elation when I asked, “Is this you?” with my finger on a photograph that appeared on the front page of The Borneo Post.

“Yes!” she exclaimed enthusiastically. It was an old group photograph of some of the early batch of midwives trained by the Medical Department in Sarawak in 1958.

The front page news was heart- warming indeed — the Ministry of Welfare, Community Wellbeing, Women, Family and Childhood Development, in conjunction with this year’s Women’s Day celebration themed ‘Women and Health’, was conferring special recognition on the trained midwives and had so far managed to trace three of them.

Still on the photograph, I asked, “What about this one… is this aunt Lime?”

“Yes,” she responded.

I would not have known that my two aunts, Catherine Likup and Monica Lime Bakar were among the early group of midwives to be trained by the Sarawak Medical Department if not for the front page news!

Catherine receiving her special recognition award from Abang Johari.

Catherine had just finished her Senior Cambridge examinations at St. Mary’s School Kuching, where she completed her primary and secondary education, when she was recommended by a female relative, who was a nurse, to Matron Bryan of the Sarawak

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General Hospital.

The latter was looking for potential candidates from different races — Chinese, Iban, Bedayuh, Indian and Malay — to be trained as midwives, and as an Iban and a Form Five student, she was eligible.

“It happened so fast. I didn’t even apply for the job and my examination results were not out yet… I just got interviewed and was accepted. I remember I was still going to school after sitting for Senior Cambridge when they gave me the trainee’s uniform. All those who went for the interview were accepted,” Catherine prided.

She had never imagined herself to be a nurse or a midwife. To begin with, she could not even stand seeing blood and could faint at the sight of it.

She always wanted to be a teacher but that would require her to stay at the Batu Lintang Teachers’ Training College.

This combination picture shows Catherine (right) and Matron Bryan of the Sarawak General Hospital (left) who was assigned to scout for potential candidates. (Right) Catherine with her coursemates, Baun Balan (left) and Asong Lenjau (right) who were from Baram.

Being the only daughter, her parents were not prepared to let her go.

Catherine was barely 17 years old when she trained as a midwife at the Sarawak General Hospital for two years.

“It was hard,” she said of those early days.

“At the beginning of my training, my father bought me a bicycle. I didn’t even know how to ride a bicycle and so I had a tough time learning how to ride a bicycle. I fell with the bicycle many times until I cried!” she continued.

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Her journey to her workplace was a “punishing one.”

She lived in Kampung Sungai Bedil Kecil, a Malay and Iban  neighbourhood located near the Astana.

The area was characterised by undulating terrain with ascending roads and sloppy paths.

And to get to the other side of the river where the main town was, she had to take a ‘sampan’ along with her bike.

“I remember cycling downhill in my nurse uniform when my bike skidded and rammed somebody’s house,” she recalled.

Recipients of the special recognition awards enjoying light moments with Fatimah.

“I dreaded morning shifts as I had to go to work in the wee hours of the morning and braved through dark lonely roads. I used to be terrified of one weird looking rubbish collector who always showed up in the wee hours to perform his duty. The ride to work could be so eerie that sometimes I just dumped my bike and made big steps into the building upon reaching the hospital. That was how hard it was,” she said.

Over time Catherine mustered up her courage to perform her duty as a midwife cum nurse — she was able to overcome her fear of seeing blood.

“During our training, we were required to deliver twenty babies in the hospital and twenty more outside. That means, we would have to deliver forty cases before we could qualify as midwives. But we did more than the required numbers,” said Catherine who had delivered countless babies during her working years.

“Actually, my post was Assistant Health Visitor whose work included visiting postnatal and antenatal mothers. We made visits to mothers at their homes to give postnatal and antenatal care. The job took us to outstations on long journeys through rugged terrain. I was prone to nausea because of the punishing ride,” she said.

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When she was not visiting, she delivered babies.

“People just kept giving birth,” she says in amusement.

After she married, she resigned from her job and moved to Miri to follow her husband Florian Gundodog (a Kadazan from Sabah) who was then a police constable on a transfer to the oil town.

Soon, she was working with the Miri General Hospital after being offered the same post.

A few years later, when her husband was transferred to Betong, she continued to serve as a health visitor cum midwife at the local hospital.

Reminiscing those days, she recollected some old wives’ tales that she found to be ‘true’: “On one occasion, the Resident of Betong came knocking on our door in the middle of the night telling me that his wife was in labour. I hastened to their house and found that the latter was having difficulty in delivering her baby.

“Hours later, the husband realised that he had inflated a ball and tied the tip of it to keep the air from flowing out. When he untied the knot his wife immediately gave birth. So never shut things when you’re pregnant!”

In line with its theme, Women and Wellness, this year’s Women’s Day celebration saw the reunion of the early batch of midwives and nurses as they turned up to receive their special recognition awards from the Chief Minister of Sarawak, Datuk Patinggi Abang Johari Tun Datuk Abang Haji Openg.

The ladies, now in their late 70s and early 80s, were overjoyed to meet their old colleagues, most of them for the first time in decades, much more than the special recognition.