On a Sunday afternoon in August 1971 I stepped inside the door of the Nurses’ Home of a hospital in Melbourne, Australia. I was full of excitement at what my nursing training might hold.
Little did I realise how my career would unfold – from care, into genetics, into research – especially as my first afternoon was spent learning how to make a nurse’s cap out of a semi-circle of highly starched linen (I was still struggling with that particular task three years later when I graduated).
Under the hospital-based apprentice model of training, we were an intrinsic part of the hospital workforce and learnt quickly through experience. I loved everything but night duty and after graduation I went on to work as a paediatric nurse, in the operating theatres and then reached my goal of becoming a midwife.
It was as a midwife that I first started to learn about genetics, working in a teaching hospital in charge of a foetal diagnostic unit.
Times were so different – ultrasound scans were a new phenomenon reserved for women with complicated pregnancies, amniocentesis was very risky, and genetic counselling consisted of risk assessment: couples then had a decision to make whether to avoid having children or just take the risk. Genetic testing was limited to chromosome analysis, and all other diagnosis was by clinical examination.
But I was bitten by the genetics bug, and when I moved to the UK – I fell in love with a British man – I responded to an advertisement for a nurse specialist for a new genetics service in Somerset. To my amazement I was given the job, and quickly had to increase my limited knowledge.
I read a lot, but it was working in the clinics with an excellent geneticist that I learnt most – not only about genetics, but how to explain the difficult concepts involved and how to deliver difficult news to families on a daily basis.