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Sunday, 14 August 2016





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Government Gazette

Nursing more than just a duty - Trixie Marthenesz

For all of Trixie Marthenesz's sixty seven years spent in the nursing profession, her constant inspiration has been Florence Nightingale's keyword in her pledge to all newcomers joining the Training School for Nurses she founded in 1860 during the Crimean War: "with loyalty will I endeavour to aid the physician in his work and devote myself to the welfare of those committed to my care"

It is this tireless devotion to a 24 hour job that singles out the nursing profession from all others, says Trixie, one of her most ardent followers. "Patients get admitted to a hospital because only nursing care can offer them services of persons whose knowledge filled head and dexterous hands are inspired by a loving heart", she said echoing Nightingale's words.

She remembers reiterating Nightingale's words again when, along with other newly passed out student nurses dressed in white sarees and white sandals, she had stood in line for her capping ceremony in 1951 admitting her to the worldwide sisterhood of nursing, at the University of Delhi. The chief guest on that memorable occasion was the first Health Minister of the first Indian Cabinet Rajkumari Amrit Kaur, she recalls.


At 88 hitting 89, the sprightly soon to be nonagenarian is certainly not in a hurry to discard the nurses uniform she has worn nearly all her life excepting for the first 18 years when she was schooling prior to her departure to New Delhi in 1950 - the first batch of student nurses to follow a degree course in nursing in Sri Lanka, albeit on foreign soil.

As she springs from her desk with the agility of a netball player and the grace of a dancer to greet cameraman Vipula Amerasinghe and this writer, when we enter her book-lined sitting room, she looks ready to rock and roll for another decade.

Despite her fully grey hair, her face is unlined, and while most women her age shuffle and bump their way through life depending on walking sticks, walking aids, and carers, she flits like a butterfly in constant motion, moving lightly and swiftly to show us treasures hidden in her memory box containing photographs, newspaper cuttings, scraps from albums, family snaps which tell the story of her life, spanning two different centuries. Most important in that treasure box are the books she has written over the years to enhance the knowledge of junior pupil nurses whom she still continues to teach at the Open University, Sri Jayawardenapura University , and the Kotalawela Defence University. She is especially proud of the fact that it was she who trained the first batch of eighty nine male and female students in their first year of nursing.

Early childhood

The daughter of a middle level civil servant whose work took him to almost every part of the island, her first school was Holy Family Convent, Kurunegala at the age of five. She remained in the school till age ten during which time she received a good foundation in the English language, enabling her much later to write a grammar book for beginner nurses in the hope of improving their English.

"When I was ten the war broke out and all the schools in our town were closed and the students evacuated and sent to schools outside the war zone. I was sent to Seevali Vidyalaya in Ratnapura. It was a fee levying private a co-educational school like most schools at the time, and it was there that I learned Bharatha Natyam dancing under maestro Pani Bharatha, a pupil of Shanthi Niketan, who taught dancing in our school," she recalls.

From there, she was admitted to Ladies' College, when her father was transferred briefly to Colombo, and after the SSC exam she was admitted to Ananda College.

Ananda College

"I wanted to do science. In the 1940s no girls' schools had any laboratories to do our dissection work which was compulsory for admission to the university. Only a few boys' schools had fully equipped labs, and Ananda Vidyalaya was one. It was a co-educational private school at that time like all schools in the country, as there were no government schools. Since the number of pupils in our class was small ( no more than ten to fifteen), we did our own dissections, unlike in today's overcrowded classrooms, where the teacher does the dissections due to the time factor.", she recalls.

From her memory box, she draws several anecdotes of that period spent at Ananda College.

"Most boys' schools with labs had their own ponds - not for beautifying the school, but rather to breed frogs and fish for our dissection classes. I remember one of the labourers, Simon whose job was to catch these poor creatures with a fishing net, and chloroform them, so that we could wax and dissect them. He used to bring in cockroaches from the school compound in empty matchboxes and worms in bottles".

Roly Poly

It was at Ananda College that she learned to be a lady, she confesses. "After going to this boys' school, all of us learned to sit properly with our legs crossed and to the side, instead of spreading them as we did in a girls' school. We also learned to be more soft spoken and lady like to impress the boys. I also became a sportswoman, an athlete and swimmer. Despite being quite fat (I was called 'Roly Poly Trixie') I became the sprint queen though most of the boys placed their bets on my rival, a tall thin girl." she says with a tinge of pride at the recollection. To this day, Trixie considers herself as 'the most Senior Old Anandian (SOA)'

Nursing career

So how did this tom boy end up as a nurse?

"Nursing was never a childhood dream", admits this pioneer nursing sister. "My entry to the profession was quite by chance."

Ceylon had just got her independence in 1948 and the government was already embarking on a 'Ceylonization' of the hospitals, she recalls. "All the English and Irish nuns were leaving the island, and the hospitals needed replacements - from Sri Lankans. So, when a gazette notification appeared in the Ceylon Daily News in 1950, calling for girls between 16 and 25 holding a London Matriculation certificate, to be trained for a nursing diploma for four years in Delhi, I applied. I was 17 years at the time. Three other Lankan girls from different schools also applied." She still has vivid memories of the saree she wore on that occasion. "It was the first time I wore a saree. It was sea blue georgette. I wore wedge heeled shoes, with a one and a half inch heel,, which was the fashion in the mid forties."

On the night of July 12, 1950, carrying their metal padlocked trunks packed with clothes and gifts, the three selected girls, left for Madras, boarding the night mail train to Talaimannar Pier, then travelling by steam boat to Danushkodi Pier in India. "The boat captain passed the time giving us a brief history, geography and cultural lesson about India, since we knew very little about this vast sub continent as geography was not a subject in our curriculum in school then", she confesses. .

"We were the first batch to leave Sri Lanka for nursing education in Delhi. We returned in July 1954 after undergoing a very comprehensive nursing course, both practical and theory, which took us to distant villages in the poorest areas in Delhi, where we made home visits and helped heal wounded villagers, physically and mentally", she says in retrospect.

Of the nursing profession itself, in Sri Lanka, she says the major breakthrough for nurses came with the establishment of the Public Health Nurses' Association ( OPHNA) in 1934 which helped in the setting up of the Nurses Training School in Colombo in 1930. Another step forward was the state registration of nurses which gave nurses the legal status to practise, but no autonomy, by the Ceylon Medical Council. The post of Principal Public Health Nurse at the Ministry of Health was another noteworthy achievement.

By 1953, the profession had progressed remarkably well, she notes, with reviews of curricula, opening of Schools of Nursing and promotion of nurses to higher positions in the three different areas of education, hospital service and public health. Also Ceylonisation of the nursing service was nearing completion during this time".

A trail-blazer

Adventurous, spirited and daring, this trail blazing nursing sister who left the shelter of her home and family at a time when most young girls were not even allowed to cross the thresholds of their homes, and returned with a Baccalaureate degree in nursing, boasts of an impressive list of achievements amassed during her 89 years of life.

One of the first graduate nurses in Sri Lanka, after obtaining her BSc ( Hons) degree from the University of Delhi in 1954, she went on to get a diploma in Clinical Teaching from the Royal College of Nursing, University of London in 1967. Thereafter, she served as a senior tutor in the Post Basic School of Nursing, Colombo (1960-81) during which time she served on the Ceylon Medical Council. Currently, she is a visiting academic to students in three universities; Open University, University of Sri Jayawardenepura, and the Kothalawela Defence University at Ratmalana.

She is also a member of several organisations spawned in the 20th century. They include; Sri Lanka Federation of University Women where she was a former editor of its newsletter, Soroptomist International Colombo, Sri Lanka Women's Conference , the Sri Lanka Nurses' Association ( an affiliate of the International Council of Nurses) and the Patron of the Graduate Nurses Foundation Sri Lanka (an affiliate of the Organisation of Professional Associations in Sri Lanka (OPA.)

She is also an author of several books, both, fiction on health issues and on nursing, the last mostly aimed at improving social and other skills in junior nurses.

If she had one wish what would it be? we ask. A member of several travel clubs, she says, "I would like to continue travelling to other countries. I often travel in my dreams. So why not the real thing?" she asks as we leave.


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