Remembering Aikenhead Stories
As we say goodbye to the Aikenhead Wing in 2021, it is important to acknowledge the special place the building holds in the hearts of thousands of our current and former nurses. Here are some of those special memories and photos that people have shared.
Maria Sfendourakis was a new immigrant from Greece in need of a job. She reached out to one of the sisters at St Vincent’s who was in charge of catering.
“Sister, I am here looking for a job. Is there anything available for me?” It was urgent for Maria as her husband was out of work and they had 2 young children. The sister responded “come in tomorrow dear, and I will let you know.”
Next morning she went in. Maria was hired as Food Services Supervisor at Aikenhead. And that is where she worked for 27 years, from the ages of 28 to 55.
Maria saw generations of nurses graduate, decked out in their hats and uniform, over the years. “I saw all the young girls come in, like white birds… I still have them in my heart.”
“It was the best time of my life. I would work and I was tired, but I never felt it because I was happy,” Maria said.
- Maria Sfendourakis, Food Services Supervisor at Aikenhead
My memories of moving to the "new" nurse's home in Victoria Parade 66 years ago are dim but I am happy to share what I remember.
The move happened in early January 1956. About twelve of us moved from a terrace house/nurse's home in Princes Street to the second or third floor of the new building. It felt like being part of history to be among the first group to live there. I certainly would not have imagined that I would live to see the building demolished so many years later. Only one floor was ready and as I finished my training eight weeks later, I was not there when it was fully occupied.
Entry was via the underground tunnel that connected the main hospital with Brenan Hall and the new nurse's home. I recall a rumour that someone climbed up the fire escape and in through a window with a visitor (strictly not allowed). The rooms were bright and fitted with a built in wardrobe and drawers a chair and bed and there may have been a desk. Bathrooms were a shared facility and distinctly superior to what was available in the "old" nurse's home above Brenan Hall, which they were replacing. There was a ban on preparing food snacks in our rooms so a tea room was available. I have no memory of why so few of us moved in there, they may have had other plans for the Princes Street house.
Curfews were enforced as part of the regime for nurses. We were limited to one midnight curfew and two or three ten o'clock curfews per week. The night superintendent was at the front desk of the hospital and would witness the nurse's signing in on arrival. A night watchman would be contacted to take the nurse to the tunnel where he unlocked the gate and she could make her way to the door which led to the stairs. Signing in after the official time was met with a threat of being "grounded" for a time but the rule was not too harsh. I was guilty of over staying my freedom on three occasions in my last week. The night before I was to leave, Sr. Zita noted the recurrent offending and warned that there would be consequences. I must admit to feeling a bit smug - no threat could harm me by then.
For me it was a "heady" time. I had recently met the love of my life, and I was about to end my time at St Vincent's and head back to my home town in the country for a few months before starting a midwifery course. If the memories of that time are sketchy I blame those distractions.... and a touch of seniority.
- Leonie Croatto (nee Allman)
September 60 PTS: I recall the suitcases that contained our uniforms and were distributed every Thursday to our room. The blue and white check dress was made of impenetrable material that never wore out! Shank buttons had to be assembled every time we had a change of laundry, and we attached the rigid starched collars to the uniform , which would result in a sore red rash around our neck, a soothing , soft scarf would often be surreptitiously tucked in for relief. Were they lisle stockings , worn with our practical Hall’s brown lace up shoes? The long white starched apron covered all! As the courage grew , the length of the apron reduced, rolled up at the waist and firmly held in place by our one blue stripe belt and the buckle. So proud of the buckle! Everything had to be assembled! I nearly forgot our cap, with the drawstring to pull into shape and the SVH emblem on the front, and nary a strand of hair to be seen! Stand us up, the blue cape slung around our shoulders and off into the unknown. The rigidity of our uniform also reflected the lifestyle we led, rules and regulations abounded with fear of dismissal a constant threat.
Throughout the first 6 week period at the Mary Aikenhead Home, we observed strict lights out by 10! Mass every day, no access to the "caf", as we learnt about ethics, hygiene, anatomy and physiology, cross infection etc, We also learnt how to smoke, what dances to attend with free admission, what our wage was, and how to wash our own clothes. We shared a communal bathroom, and announcements we had an incoming phone call, or a visitor in the foyer, were disseminated throughout the home!
- Jenny McKenna
I arrived at St Vincent’s Hospital to commence my training in August 1984. I was the first of many family members to follow my parents to the hospital.
I was lucky enough to get one of the rooms to the left of the lifts on the 6th floor at the very end of that short corridor. It really was very spacious and a good spot, as the months went on, for congregating.
When we would go out in the evenings, as the hour became late, there was always much discussion about leaving in time for the hourly escort through the tunnels by the night security guard. I spent many an hour waiting in casualty as these calculations had not really been very accurate. There were certainly always many characters in casualty to entertain a young country girl.
I guess the most endearing outcome from my time in the Aikenhead Wing was the friendships I forged. Living together as young people embarking on our lives as adults, and the emotional highs and lows. We supported each other as we dealt with sickness and death, which made these connections even more meaningful. After 36 years I still remain dear friends with many of my Aikenhead co-tenants, celebrating marriages and births with them and supporting each other through deaths and other difficult times. I will always remember my time in the Aikenhead Wing with much joy and appreciation for the career it lead me to, but mostly the precious enduring friendships I made.
- Gemma Short (nee Croatto)
I've worked in Health Information Services for 12 years. When I first started work at St V's at orientation we were told the building would be demolished "soon". This year, in April, it's finally happening. I will miss the quaint old building, with it's bright blue bathroom and watching all the generations of pigeons (squabs) that have been born and raised on the balcony outside my window. Farewell Aikenhead Building!
- Donna Pascoe
I heard the news just recently which brought a wave of nostalgia to my heart. Aikenhead Nurse’s home is soon to be demolished and will disappear to the ground.
For anyone else driving past the 1950’s orange brick building, it may just appear to be just an old building, stately and silent, long past its use and time. But to me it is so much more, and represents a significant moment in time.
Arriving in August 1984, a tentative 18-year-old, with suitcase in hand, the day I moved from the beach to start nursing.
Walking down long linoleum corridors. Discovering our rooms with pale wooden furniture, narrow beds with views over Melbourne city. Nervous smiles, introductions and helping each other how to place our first-year caps on our heads.
Aikenhead was our home for our first year of nursing. The large cafeteria, the brick lined balcony with city views, the roof top where some sun baked and others drank forbidden bottles of gin. The creaky lifts than often broke down leaving nurses stranded. The myth of the haunted level 5 where we dared each other to run through its dark passages in the early hours.
The deep baths in the pink tiled bathrooms which soaked away the exhaustion of long busy shifts. The end living rooms where we gathered, someone playing the piano, discussing our shifts, favourite patients or debriefing after a long night nursing a dying patient and supporting a family through their grief.
The long tunnels connecting Aikenhead to the hospital, the only entrance home after a night out in the city and that sinking feeling missing the hourly door opening from the tunnel by only 5 minutes.
The kindly strict home supervisors who checked the floors for any visitors and were constantly busy keeping excitable first year students in-check. The large religious statues that mysteriously ended up in bedrooms or when the piano was moved into my room, baffling the supervisors to wonder how could someone possibly steal a piano.
Way beyond the physical attributes of the building, the most significant part of living there and nursing at St Vincent’s is the life long, enduring friendships forged there. I count nurses from my group as some of my dearest friends today. I also met my life partner of 35 years, one of the three males in our PTS intake. We point out Aikenhead to our children in passing, reflecting a life defining meeting.
So, it is with a heavy heart, we bid farewell to Aikenhead, an iconic building of such significance to many.
Vale Aikenhead. Your stately presence will be no longer, yet all the experiences and collective memories of every nurse who lived there, will always keep the spirit of Aikenhead alive.
You are definitely more than just bricks and mortar to me.
- Carmel Cotter
Please share your Aikenhead memories and stories
To celebrate Aikenhead, please share your special memories and photos with us. We will publish your stories and photos on this website page and preserve them in the collection of SVHM Archives. There are also plans to create a special presentation to commemorate this landmark building. Stay tuned for more information and details about 2021 celebratory events.
Please share your stories – up to 300 words in length - and photos.