Jilska Williams may be retiring but while she’s sad her nursing career is coming to an end, she is excited about what comes next.
A registered nurse and midwife for 50 years this March, Jilska studied nursing in England and arrived in Victoria at the height of the 1986 strike. It was a dramatic introduction to Australian nursing, and also how Jilska became aware of the RANF (as the union was then known) – which turned out to be a fortuitous match: ‘the union’s been absolutely fabulous to me,’ she says, ‘so I’ll do anything for them.’
From a family of doctors, Jilska chose nursing as ‘something different’. It’s a brilliant career that gives you skills you can use in all aspects of life, she says. ‘I remember going to a ball, in this plunging neckline long gown, high-heeled shoes, when I heard someone go bang. I turned around and there was this man on the floor. I later learned there were three doctors there, but not one got up to resuscitate this man, so I was resuscitating him – and all I could think was that my cleavage was showing!’.
She recalls this anecdote with a laugh, but emphasises that what makes the job remarkable is being able to make a difference in people’s lives. ‘The fact that you can help someone to walk out healthy or from death’s door, it’s a wonderful feeling.’ Jilska has spent the last 22 years working in neonatal intensive care at Monash Children’s Hospital. For almost 20 of those years, she has been the unit’s ANMF Job Rep.
‘I’ve given the hospital quite a bit of grief in that time, because I’m quite a good snitch,’ she says with a giggle.
She was recruited to the role by a parent whose premature baby she was looking after. Among the reasons she agreed to do it was so she could speak up for her younger colleagues.
‘When you first start, you’re often too scared and don’t know your rights and don’t say boo to a goose, so you get pushed around,’ she says. ‘I didn’t like seeing that so I thought I could be a voice for them. So that’s why I became a Rep.’
As she began her transition to retirement, she recruited not one but three people to take over from her. ‘I reminded them that being a Job Rep carries some clout; people will listen to you. I also said: you need to like coming to work instead of just turning up because you need the money; being a Rep can help make that possible. And it’s a really good feeling when you make a difference.’
‘Being a Job Rep carries some clout; people will listen to you.’
Jilska has definitely made a difference. She’s earned a reputation for holding management accountable and encouraging her colleagues to pursue their entitlements. In the process, she’s also earned a reputation as a go-to source of information. This made her laugh when a young colleague rang her at home one day because she was having car problems. ‘I asked: why do you think I could solve your car problems? She said ‘oh Jilska knows everything’, so she rang me about her car. That was quite funny.’
It was not entirely off base, as it turns out. Years ago, after her husband died, Jilska did an RACV course because she wanted to be independent. A fan of lifelong learning, she’s currently spending her long service leave studying at TAFE. The course: construction and building.
‘I’ve gone from scrubs to khaki pants and steel-tipped shoes,’ she says, ‘and I’m loving it.’ Her fellow students are mostly teenagers (including her daughter, who when not ‘smashing it’ at TAFE with her mum is a captain in the army reserve). Every week Jilska gives an update on her progress to her colleagues at Monash. ‘I’m trying to make them all aware that age is no barrier,’ she says. ‘If you want to do something, just get off your backside and go and do it because no one comes knocking on your door.’
True to her word, Jilska also has a side hustle making fun and colourful scrubs. She’s been running that business, called Healers of Heart, for 11 years and sells scrubs all over Australia – and occasionally overseas – from her Facebook page (facebook.com/healersofheart).
‘I don’t feel like I’m retired,’ she says. ‘I think I’m busier than ever.’