Sister Ellen Savage

I know so many selfless, helpful, kind, and generous people. They work as social workers, psychologists, doctors, emergency services personnel, policy writers, carers – the list goes on. I love all of these people and try to emulate their unwavering efforts to help others in my own work and daily life.

The nurses I have in my life (even those no longer working) are hard working, kind – firm but fair. They are straight shooters who always have a plan of action and will pivot and shift their plans to suit the moment with no fluster and buckets of grace. I feel like it is very much a case of ‘once a nurse, always a nurse’.

Even in our current time, nurses are not paid enough. They are not respected by their colleagues on the ward. They are yelled at, assaulted, questioned and belittled by their patients. They work horrific hours, sleep for 3 hours then get up and do it all again. They do all this with grit and determination because nurses are not in it for the glory. They will clean your sores. They will dress your wounds. They will brace your broken bones and change your fluid bags. Even 10 hours into a shift they will still crack a joke, have a giggle with a colleague about a burst pustule or put their half eaten sandwich down to rush to help if you are bleeding out or crashing. Heck, they’ll put their half eaten sandwich down to get YOU a bloody sandwich, forget about it, then have to throw it out 4 hours later when they realise they never got back to eating it.

During the 1900s, nurses were still just as essential, but their conditions were even more challenging than they are today, both on shore and abroad. Whilst this post is about one particular individual, I would note that there are thousands of Australian nurses before and since whose stories could be told.

Ellen Savage was an Australian Army Nurse (AANS) from 1941 to 1946.  Ellen was on a hospital ship called the Centaur in May of 1943 when it was sunk by a Japanese torpedo. Ellen’s injuries were extensive: she suffered severe bruising, a fractured nose, burst ear drums, a broken palate and fractured ribs. Despite this, she managed to swim to a makeshift raft, concealing her own injuries so that she could support those with extensive burn injuries. She boosted morale, managed the rationing of food and water and ultimately aided the survival of 64 survivors.

Ellen was the only nurse on board to survive, and was awarded the George Medal for ‘conspicuous service and high courage’. She was the second woman to receive the award. An incredible quote from Ellen is as follows:

“Merle Morton and myself were awakened by two terrific explosions and practically thrown out of bed … I registered mentally that it was a torpedo explosion … In that instant the ship was in flames … we ran into Colonel Manson, our commanding officer, in full dress even to his cap and ‘Mae West’ life-jacket, who kindly said ‘That’s right girlies, jump for it now.’ The first words I spoke was to say ‘Will I have time to go back for my great-coat?’ as we were only in our pyjamas. He said ‘No’ and with that climbed the deck and jumped and I followed … the ship was commencing to go down. It all happened in three minutes.” (Source)

In 1943 Ellen returned to nursing. This line regarding how she was seen by those around her made me laugh:

“She was respected and somewhat feared for her insistence on high standards of discipline and knowledge” (Source)

If anyone has known a nurse, or like me was raised by one, this one rings so true! Fiercely competent, strong, fearless and determined to succeed, nurses are among the strongest men and women in the world. To think that Ellen was able to return the world of nursing after suffering such tragedy and loss is incredible to me. But it isn’t surprising. Just like all of those nurses I know in my little world, Ellen put her own pain aside to continue helping others.

Ellen was founding member, council-member and president of the College of Nursing. Sadly, Ellen passed away in 1985 after attending an ANZAC day reunion, and like all of those who fought and aided in the war efforts, Ellen is gone, but never forgotten.

Thank you to the following sites:

 

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