The Flying Nurse by Prudence Wheelwright

Reviewed by Wendy Lipke

This book covers twenty years in the remarkable life of a young woman, Prudence Wheelwright, who was born on a merino sheep station in New South Wales. The writing of the book was undertaken to help her to recover from trauma which had built up through her work as a nurse, as she says in her journal ‘I had to get out of my head and get things off my chest’ (199).

Not confident with tackling the project herself, she trusted Alley Pascoe with her journal. In the Acknowledgement, she says that she gave her soul on paper to a stranger and took a leap of faith (293). The stories that appear are stories from her perspective and how she felt at the time.

There are ten chapters and each shares her time in a particular part of the world as she takes on short contracts for various organisations who can use her nursing and midwifery skills.

She tells the reader that she never set out to be a nurse. At the end of her secondary education, with her mother determined that she should get a degree, it was a bargaining chip so she could have a year overseas, a gap year to travel. She obtained a placement as a carer in London, to give her a ticket to the other side of the world. At the end of that year, which gave her plenty of opportunity to travel, her mother enrolled her in nursing and teaching degrees. Her daughter had no idea what she wanted to do.  She was not really fussed on nursing until a visiting lecturer from Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF), a humanitarian organisation helping people affected by conflicts, disasters and diseases across the world, opened a window on an opportunity too good to miss out on. A dream was born.

After finishing her degree in nursing and one in midwifery, she travelled to South Africa and America, then applied for a job in Saudi Arabia before returning to Australia and becoming a remote area nurse (RAN) in Central Australia. Her experiences here fuelled a goal to join the Royal Flying Doctor Service (RFDS) but she had not lost her other dream of working for MSF. She left the Red Centre for Mexico and beyond, trekking through mountains and hopping on a boat to Antarctica.

When she returned to Australia for work at the top end, an offer from MSF would send her to Tajikistan supporting children with HIV/Aids, followed by a posting in Ethiopia where devastating, blood soaked, brutal reality taught her there was power in knowledge and hopefully compassion too.

In this location, she found herself working in a refugee camp with co-workers from across the world. It was here, mostly, that she learned that there are many ways of doing things (145). There were phenomenal experiences and small wins with many frustrations, day to day. She says that she often felt like an ‘albino hippopotamus in a land of floating gazelles’ (147). Working under very extreme conditions, she discovered that lots of the midwives were men. Nine months in Ethiopia were spent setting up and opening a 24-hour maternity hospital in a refugee camp.

At the end of this placement, it was back to the Top End where she knew it was time to unpack her backpack. She had experienced nine months in Ethiopia followed by a debrief in Berlin, a holiday in Georgia, a deep sleep in London, back to Georgia, home to Australia and the farm. But she felt lost. She was trapped between two worlds, the privileged and the impoverished.

This was a time of reassessment. She realised that she had not accomplished any of the societal milestones of the average Australian. She believed that she had nothing, only stories. In six years, she hadn’t stayed at one address for longer than four months. The road less travelled had taken its toll and even though the work had made her stronger, she knew she needed to rest. (221) The ten years since graduating had ticked off many of her career goal and she had travelled the world and seen places most people never will (221).

Back in the Red Centre RFD’S dream job, combining all her passions of maternity, emergency work, community and travel, came true, and she was to learn that nursing on the ground was one thing; nursing in the air, a whole other game (270).

The reader learns much about the work done in all these different organisations. There are many stories, some good, some bad and some just comical. I loved the conversation with her gynaecologist about unicorns and climbing different mountain peaks (259).

At age thirty-seven she is still working with the RFDS. The story ends at the beginning with the RFDS plane flying above a red dirt airstrip in the outback. This time she is not looking up but looking down.

What an inspiring book.

The Flying Nurse


by Prudence Wheelwright with Alley Pascoe



$34.99; 304pp

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