John - An Accidental Career

John - An Accidental Career

An Accidental Career

How does a person who fails Year 10 English and Maths then goes on to have a successful and rewarding career in nursing?

The Early Years

Growing up a country town with the name of John Brown was not easy and a reason not to like school.  My parents named me after my father’s brother who was known as Jack.  I’m sure they didn’t realise the effects of my name, which was similar to the television advert for Callum Marie.

There were little job opportunities in town but having obtained a credit for booking keeping I guess, it suited me to become a bank officer. Living at home for the first 18 months had benefits, but moving away to work for the bank’s relieving staff opened my eyes to a new world of people, culture and opportunities.

Start of a Career

At age 19 I had to put my name forward for National Service and my birthday was drawn so I had to enter into the Army at Singleton. Having previous experience of scouts and boys brigade with a first aid certificate, stood me in good standing, as I was posted to the Royal Australian Army Medical Corp.  Most of my platoon mates had no qualifications and wanted to be truck drivers so they were posted to the Infantry (or cannon fodder as we called it).  My first posting was to Healesville in the middle of winter for Corp training.  Camping out in the Dandenong’s in snow was an experience especially as the boy from the bush had never seen snow.

The next posting was to 2 Military Hospital, Ingleburn, for training as a Medical Assistant.   After completion of training, I was posted back to 8 Camp Hospital Singleton for the remainder of my time.  The routine was to look after those hospitalised for minor issues such as German measles or sports injuries. Weekends required attending to the Medical Officer for sick parade. Twelve guys on one parade with STIs from the same sexual contact was an eye opener. Learning to take full body x-rays with a dental x-ray machine was one learning opportunity.

November 1972 saw Gough Whitlam swept to power and the abolition of National Service.   Servicemen conscripted, walked out of the Battalion, I stayed on for the experience.  On discharge, I was able to register as an Enrolled Nurse. I returned to the bank requesting a posting to anywhere other than Sydney CBD.  My posting was as a teller at George Street North Branch, Sydney.

Continuing to work in the bank, I went back to TAFE at night and improved my education to enable admission to a General Nursing program.

Beginning or a rewarding Career

I was accepted to do my general nursing at Repatriation General Hospital, Concord where a third of the students were male. The wage was very low at the time and there was a separate award rate for males and females. Life changed for the better, I now felt I had a purpose. I became active in the RANF as the Student President, elected to the RANF NSW Branch and organised the inter hospital swimming carnival.  I completed my training and became second in charge of the Respiratory Intensive Care Unit before resigning to undertake Midwifery at Liverpool Hospital.

Change in Career

I had an opportunity to undertake youth work, another passion, so resigned before completing midwifery, however I did mange to deliver fifteen babies, the first delivery was twins. A very rewarding time seeing babies born and able to share that experience with the parents.

After 12 months and with a young family, I was offered a position of Recruitment Officer in local government. I then studied for a Certificate in Personnel Administration whilst returning to Concord part time to work in the Endocrine Ward of women.   Another experience of working in a white uniform and the patients telling me they could see the ants on my pants (underwear).

Returning to my Passion

The early 80s saw a move to Canberra working as a recruitment officer and working part time at a private hospital.  A career in personnel was not my choice so I returned to nursing at Royal Canberra Hospital. Working in the Neurosurgical Ward and then Accident & Emergency gave me greater experience in nursing as well as exposure to issues currently affecting nursing.

I had an opportunity to live in Brisbane and work night duty for 3 months before working at RGH Greenslopes. Again I became interested in the profession of nursing and was asked to become Branch Secretary, Royal Australian Nursing Federation, Queensland Branch.  In this role I was able to observe at the national level, the changes in nursing including the career structure. I was actively involved in the negotiation of nurse education being transferred to the Colleges which became Universities. I also produced an educational video centred around the Coroner’s Court and organised yearly forums for specialities in nursing.

A phone call one day from a resort island nurse looking for some one to relive her for a week for much needed rest, saw me take leave and fly up to the Whitsunday Islands. First night I was called out at 11 pm to attend to a staff member putting their fist through plate glass window and severing radial and ulna arteries.  Next boat out took him to Airlie then to Proserpine, Mackay and finally to Royal Brisbane for microsurgery. Another staff member complained of pain in the back. A check of urine revealed blood and a report to a GP on the mainland confirmed my suspicion of kidney stones.  Another call out at night to a guest requiring assessment and a phone call to the GP on the mainland and a whole list of charges that should be made. I hesitated thinking I can’t charge all this “But I’m only a nurse”.  This was the watershed moment of realising I am more than a nurse. That I have a wealth of experience and knowledge.  

With harmonisation of RANF and Queensland Nurses Union, my role became education officer.

Preventative Health Care

In the early 1990s I accepted a position of Nurse Manager for Community Health, West Moreton Regional Health. This role soon evolved into Coordinator Community Health and the commissioning of a new centre at Goodna. I had already completed a Graduate Diploma Health Science (Health Education) – health promotion degree which added value to the role.  On top of normal roles of Coordinator and Nurse Manager I also took on researching men’s health and promoting a healthy lifestyle around the Region. The boy from the bush had to learn how to put presentations together and how to communicate to various groups through public speaking.  I was very fortunate to have supportive managers who would encourage running with an idea and if it failed, you learnt from it. My work in men’s health over the years saw me being admitted as a Fellow of the NSW College of Nursing and Royal College of Nursing, Australia in 1997.

Several roles later including project officer for a software program being built across three States and Territory saw me accept a position of Assistant Director, Population Health – men’s and women’s health, and sexual health program for the Commonwealth Department of Health in Canberra. It took twelve months for me to realise I am not a public servant who writes ministerial briefs to get the Minister out of trouble.  However during this time a men’s health policy was commenced and major funding announcements for men’s and women’s health were announced I was very proud to be part of that initiative.

A return to Queensland involved managing a community health centre on the Southern Tablelands, Manager of the Office of Rural Health and project management for Domestic Violence initiative.

I was the Care Manager for a 160 bed aged care facility north of Brisbane. This facility had a focus on veterans so therefore I had a lot to offer and understand of the residents. They were challenging times ensuring the best possible care of residents and trying to obtain registered nurses for roles.  The backbone of the facility were the enrolled nurses who reported one RN swapping Endone for paracetamol. The matter was reported to the Queensland Nursing Council. My employer wanted it to be kept quiet. However, it turned out the nurse had a history with two pervious employers taking no action.  I copped a lot of abuse, however, the health of the community was more important to me than the person. When the age care provider decided to allow personal care assistants to give out medications, I decided I could no longer work in that environment of high risk.

The Final Count Down to Retirement

Years of working in hospital environment doing discharge planning and expanding my knowledge of community services equipped me for a role of Nurse Unit Manager of discharge planners and Indigenous Liaison Officers at a Brisbane regional hospital.  During this period I noted the high incidence of discharge against medical advice by first nation people and I embarked on a Masters of Research to convert to a PhD.  Unfortunately due to health and other reasons, I was not able to finish this important work and had to retire from the work force. During this time I was put on insulin for my diabetes; facilitated end of life care planning for my mother and had my son pass away from asthma all in a period of 6 months.  All of these experiences have enriched my life and helped to empathise with patients in similar circumstances.

Retirement lasted 4fourweeks and I was bored.  A general practice was looking for an Registered Nurse to undertake health assessments and care planning two days a week for patients with chronic conditions. This really suited my lifestyle allowing me to be more involved in community work and ultimately work closer to home.  The last five years of my nursing career have been as a practice nurse conducting health assessments and care planning. A role that is easy with the qualifications and experience I had, but in fact very draining as I spent the most time with the patient I found it was important to listen to their individual story, document and develop a pathway to deal with their issues.  The importance of listening to their stories came from my Masters Research for indigenous people. Developing rapport with patients is critical if you want to make a difference.

Now my nursing career has come to end I reflect back on it and think that all the experience and knowledge I have gained I have been able to put into practice in some way in the last five years.

Post retirement

I remain active with the Australian College of Nursing; I am Section Officer of the Australian Volunteer Coast Guard, and member of the consultative committee for Healthy Male (Andrology Australia).  I remain passionate about veteran’s health care and looking at how we can better facilitate transition to civilian life through a therapeutic environment.  This year will see me do talks to the University of the 3rd Age (U3A) and continue to advocate for a better health system for all. I have for many years been a Justice of the Peace so will continue to provide that service to the community.


No matter where you are in life we all have some qualities to contribute to society.  I hated school but given the right environment I loved learning. Nursing is a continual learning cycle.  Students would come for experience. I would also make them feel on the same level by letting them know they can learn from me and I can learn from them, demonstrating mutual respect.  A life well lived is a life well earned.  I have no regrets and would take the same pathway again knowing that my life experiences have shaped my professional work.  The important message is to achieve life’s goals no matter what disadvantages you start off in life with.

John Brown RN, Cert Personnel Admin, Grad Dip (Health Science (Health Education), FACN, JP (qual)

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Stay safe brothers and sisters!

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