From island home to long career at Calvary Mater Newcastle

Last year Calvary Mater Newcastle’s Clinical Nurse Specialist, Fane Falemaka, was the proud recipient of the Mary Potter Award. She was nominated by her peers because they felt she exemplified Calvary’s values of Hospitality, Healing, Stewardship and Respect. Also in 2016, Catholic Health Australia honoured Fane with the highly coveted Nurse of the Year Award. Aurora invited Fane to share her remarkable story. International Nurses Day will be celebrated on 12 May.

I was born on the Tongan island of Falevai, the fifth of eleven children – nine boys and two girls! Our parents had very little, and the island didn’t have much to offer, but we had lots of love and a large extended family.

I was brought up in a Methodist family and we went to church twice on Sundays as well as Sunday school. I looked forward to being dressed up and singing with the congregation. On Sundays we did nothing except church and rest – and enjoy special meals! 

Tonga is a group of islands, with Nukualofa being the main one. When I finished primary school on Falevai, I went to boarding school on another island called Neiafu. We came home on weekends and our parents could visit during the week, maybe to bring something we needed.

The next stage was moving to Nukualofa to complete my senior years of school. There was no boarding school so I stayed with relatives for two years.

By now, I was sure I wanted to become a nurse. I was fortunate to have an older brother who was studying Medicine in Queensland, so he organised for me to begin nursing training at Royal Brisbane Hospital. It was hard to leave my island home, but I knew my parents wanted each of us to have the best education and that couldn’t happen in Tonga at that time.

When I arrived at the hospital, there were some other Tongan students so that helped me to settle. My general nursing took three and a half years and then I spent six months studying midwifery. I was determined to do my best and to make my parents proud.

I became close to another Tongan nurse and she wanted to study theatre nursing in Melbourne. She completed her course and I went to Melbourne too and studied ward management, then we returned to Tonga together. It was lovely to come home!

For the next eight years, I nursed at Vaiola Hospital, Nukualofa, before being asked to return to Falevai where I spent my childhood, and run the hospital there. I had to do everything, even things that doctors usually did, because there wasn’t always a doctor.  After a year, there was an opportunity to study for a year in Wellington (New Zealand) in order to qualify to teach at the School of Nursing back on Nukualofa.

I stayed there for eight years, with my husband Taua. I had met Taua in Brisbane a number of years earlier and we’ve now been married for 40 years! Eventually we decided that if we came to Australia we would have better opportunities for work and that would help us support our families at home.

I applied for a position at the Newcastle Mater Misericordiae Hospital and began nursing there in March 1986, so this is my 31st year!

At first we lived in a one-bedroom flat in Mayfield, while we saved, then we built a home at Warabrook. I always loved working in the medical ward and I’m still there.

What a place to work! The atmosphere, the people I work with, it’s so lovely! Being there so long, I know most of the people and some of the nurses are like my children.

I love nursing. It’s a privilege to meet so many people – the people you care for, their families and friends, the doctors, the staff in your ward… When I started, the Sisters of Mercy (Singleton) were still running the hospital, and now it’s run by Little Company of Mary Health Care.

The values of Calvary Mater Newcastle – Hospitality, Healing, Stewardship and Respect – are my values too so I feel very comfortable here. I still love nursing.

I work hard, doing the best I can, with love and respect. I remember my father telling me that nursing was not an easy job, but that I needed to treat everyone with the same care and respect. That’s what I try to do every day, particularly with people who are difficult.

Sometimes other nurses say to me that I am always calm. I tell them that I am calm because I know what I have to do, and if there is a problem, there will be someone here to solve it.

I find most people admire and appreciate what we nurses do.

I have turned 70 but I am still working full-time. My husband and I were not able to have children but we have a Tongan community in Newcastle that sustains us. I belong to the Tongan Community Choir and I am the leader of a group of people who pray the rosary together regularly. We pray for the needs of the world – and there are plenty!

When we retire, Taua and I plan to return to Tonga where we both have family. The days when I received the awards – the Mary Potter Award and the Nurse of the Year − were very special days and going home will be another special day. We will have come full circle!

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Fane Falemaka

Fane Falemaka is Clinical Nurse Specialist, Calvary Mater Newcastle.

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