Q & A


Meryl Burn: 31 years at The Infants' Home and counting...

An interview with The Infants' Home Health and Early Childhood Consultant, Meryl Burn 

If Meryl Burn was a book she would be kept in that part of the library where things are not for loan.

Meryl will be cross that we said so, but as a much-loved member of our team for more than 30 years she will excuse us for showing some pride in acknowledging her contribution to The Infants’ Home throughout a career dedicated to children's health.

Meryl Burn

Meryl Burn

Q: When did you know you were going to be a nurse?

A: I knew when I was very young. I grew up in country areas. We would often drive to Sydney when I was a child and we would always drive past The Children’s Hospital in Camperdown. Apparently I would always say to my parents that I was going to work there one day.

We would only be in Sydney 2 or 3 times a year and each time we drove past that building I would say the same thing. I would always ask my parents: “What is that building?” When they told me it was a hospital I told them I was going to work there.

I did Tresillian nursing first. I did Mothercraft training for 18 months, then went to Adelaide, then worked with an inland mission for 2 years. But it was always in the back of my mind to work at The Children’s Hospital to do my general training. I haven’t looked back. I have always been interested in children, even when I was a child myself.

Q: What were the big issues of the day when you started in early childhood health?

A: I was at the Children’s Hospital in Camperdown, and then Tresillian, before I came to The Infants’ Home, so I had been working for 12 years before I started here.

Children were not surviving some of the illnesses which we don’t worry so much about today – things like measles, whooping cough, influenza, gastroenteritis, and various heart conditions. We are talking pre-vaccine days for many of these illnesses. That seems a lifetime ago now.

I remember in about 1972 being in the theatre for one of the first heart operations in Australia on a premature baby with a condition called Tetralogy of Fallot, which is more commonly known as Blue Baby Syndrome. It was amazing to see how this infant could survive, where previously that condition was basically a death sentence.

Vaccines have had a huge impact on early childhood health, so the survival rate for infants has improved dramatically.

There have been huge changes in health because of what children can now survive, and what we can now manage better. Deaths from some of these illnesses can still occur because there are children who are not immunised, but we see nothing like the same number of cases. It used to be in the hundreds.

We treat children differently now. We show children far more respect. We recognise that children have rights.

Asking a child for permission to treat them – to have a look at their sore or whatever – is most important. If you involve the child often their fear dissolves. Just by doing this, by getting to their level, you can win their co-operation. It was not always this way.

Q: Where do you stand on the issue of vaccinations for young children?

A: I have to support parents and carers both ways.

I was asked this recently by a parent, and I told them that I have held a child who had not survived whooping cough because she was too young to be vaccinated, and she had caught the disease from her unvaccinated older brother.

When you sit with parents facing that scenario, they say they wished they had vaccinated the older child. But it’s too late. I have seen the results of people not vaccinating their children, so where I stand is obvious. I am pretty strong on vaccination.

At The Infants’ Home we cannot refuse children who are not vaccinated. We must be fair. GPs counsel parents about the pros and cons. We have a very high vaccination rate in NSW now compared to even 10 years ago.

We don’t have the outbreaks of vaccine preventable illness we used to see. There are still clusters of population where parents choose not to vaccinate their children, and these are the areas where we have outbreaks. Anyone can find that out on the NSW Health web site where these suburbs are.

Q:Tell us about your first day at The Infants’ Home – what was it like?

A: I will never forget my first day. I remember walking down the drive and thinking: “My goodness! So this is what is behind that big ugly fence. It’s the same fence by the way…

I walked around the gardens. It was early February 1980 and I had come as a casual to relieve someone who was sick. I had a young child at home myself and The Infants’ Home rang me on the chance that I could do some casual shifts. It sounded alright to me.

I just remember feeling the ambience of this place, the tranquility – and the sound of happy children. There were kids out in the big playground in Robinson House and I remember thinking: I want to work here. I had not even got to the office where I had to check in and meet Sister Pearl Gillott. I remember thinking, wow!

I did some casual shifts – a couple of afternoons a week. I think The Infants’ Home was just testing me out. A few weeks later the president of the board was standing on the verandah when I was arriving for work and I wondered what I had done wrong. But she was there to offer me a full time job. I said yes. She asked if I could start the next day and I said how about the day after, because I had to organise childcare for my daughter.

It was fantastic for me because I knew I could make a difference. And I think that while I can make a difference I will stay.

I had always been in a hospital environment, such as Camperdown or Adelaide, and to me The Infants’ Home was much more than a hospital. It was about working with well children who sometimes became ill or hurt. I also enjoyed the role with parents because we would deal with children in a more holistic way than how you treated a critically sick child in a hospital.

The other impression for me about The Infants’ Home is that I had stepped back in time, perhaps back to the 1950s. It was not a place of education then, so there were more nurses employed here and they all wore uniforms.

I will never forget the layout of Rigby House. It was just like a hospital ward. I asked someone: is this where all the sick ones come and they said no, why would you ask that? It looked like a hospital because it had the two rows of cots around the four walls and hand basins in the centre, with tables for staff to sit to feed babies.

The other unusual thing was that the children would be changed into what we called their Infants’ Home clothes for the day, so their clothes from home would not get dirty. And we would change them back at the end of the day. It’s just what we did in a day care setting for babies back then.

Q: What are the most significant changes in early childhood health in the past 30 years?

A: Technology – what we can diagnose now with things such as MRI and CT scans. It has become easier to diagnose disease and illness in children.

And there are many more allergies now than what I ever remembered, such as anaphylaxis and asthma. For example, nuts were not the danger they are today.

I was reading a document recently and it made the point about food processing – that perhaps what we spray on nuts now might be causing the problem, or what we put in the soil. That makes sense to me. Forty or 50 years ago there were no chemicals sprayed on crops to protect them. It was mostly organic, which is what we are swinging back to now.

People are realising more and more that what we grow our food in has an impact on our bodies and how our bodies react to the food. We used to wash food to clean off the dirt; now we wash food to clean off the chemicals. That says it all.

Anaphylaxis is another example. In my early years of nursing I saw some dramatic reactions from people after a penicillin injection, but not from eating eggs or nuts or other foods.

And there has been a huge increase in asthma in the community. Again, it has to be about what is in the environment, especially air quality. We put huge amounts of rubbish into the atmosphere now and that has to have an effect on a child’s respiratory system.

Q: What are the most important things adults can do for children?

A: Just be with them, rather than doing for them.

We so often get caught in this pattern with children of change the nappy, have the bath, cook the food and put them to bed. We forget to just be with them. Sit in a sand pit and dig with them. Read to them. Forget the three loads of washing you have to do.

Parents say it is such a struggle when they first get home because they are trying to cook dinner and their little one is clinging to them. All I can say is remember they have been away from you all day and all they want is to be with you.

Give your child that quality time when they want you rather than when you try to fit them in and it will make a difference to the next three hours of an evening before bed. It goes a long, long way towards creating a happier household.

To me, taking that time out with my daughter was precious time. It was our mother and daughter time. I often say this to parents. Take the time to read a book, to sing a song, to draw a picture – just do something together. As adults, this is the most important thing we can do for children.

Take the time to just be with them.

Q: What do you enjoy most about your work?

A: The variety. I never know what the next phone call will bring, or what the next tap on the door will be about. No two days are the same.

I love advocating for parents and carers. For example, we have parents who are worried about developmental or learning delays with their child. They want to know what to do and where to go. We might have a parent who ultimately gets a diagnosis that their child has autism, but the first contact I have with that parent is when they do some visits and their child won’t sit to eat, or will only drink bottles.

I get to share journeys with parents as they get through the process of assessment and diagnosis, and then move on to the stage where we put strategies in place to support their child. Working with staff in this way to make a difference for a family is wonderful.

It might take six months of work or slogging away slowly, but ultimately we get to a stage where we know what we have to do to help the child; whether it’s to help them talk or be more socially aware so they can enjoy their time with others. I am constantly learning from parents, from children, and from other staff at The Infants’ Home.

The other thing I enjoy about my work is the amount of trust and respect staff and parents show towards me. They know if I can’t answer the question that I will find out for them, or find out where they should go to get answers. I am in a privileged position as a nurse to be able to say this about my work.

Q: What are your favourite or most effective traditional health remedies for young children?

A: It’s funny; we are going back to some of them again now. Zinc and castor oil was big for nappy rashes 40 years ago and it’s back in vogue.

The other one that has made a comeback is oatmeal. When I was at The Children’s Hospital in the 1970s, oatmeal was great for kids with severe eczema who needed wet bandages all over them.

When we bathed children we used to put oatmeal in muslin wraps and splash them under the tap so the kids could get an oatmeal bath. It cleansed off all the dead skin cells. And guess what all the companies are flogging now? Oatmeal shampoo, soaps, hand creams and body washes. See, if you stay around long enough, everything comes back into fashion.

I was at a conference in Brisbane in May and there was a company selling oatmeal products. I was telling the company rep, probably in her late 20s, about how we once used oatmeal and she was fascinated to hear about the oatmeal baths.

Kids were given castor oil to drink if they were constipated or had tummy aches. We don’t use castor oil for tummy aches any more, but paraffin oil is still in use. We use something called Parachoc for kids who are constipated. It’s paraffin oil with chocolate flavouring to make it a bit more palatable.

Q: How do you see the future of early childhood health?

A: It will be exciting and constantly changing.

For The Infants’ Home, our expansion will be amazing – establishing a one stop shop of allied health on our site will be fantastic.

Mainstream childcare services don’t have the things we have here. We are unique. But to allow parents to be able to see a GP, an occupational therapist or speech therapist all in one setting will be perfect.

I was talking yesterday to a mother of a child with many disabilities. The mother works 3 days a week, and on the other 2 days she often goes to 3 appointments a day for her child – physio, OT, speech. So its 3 different settings on the 2 days the child is not at The Infants’ Home. That family is in the car constantly between appointments, with a 4 year-old in tow. It is such a long day for all of them.

With our new centre, a mother like her will be able to come to the one spot. This will have a huge positive impact for families. For one thing, it will stop all the travelling for families.

This is where we are heading, and it is very exciting. I hope it all happens before I retire.

The biggest issue for The Infants’ Home is having to always get funding. It’s exhausting having to constantly seek the dollar, especially when we apply for grants and we get rejected.

It’s amazing when you think back to the humble beginnings of The Infants’ Home to where it is now, and to where it will be in a few years.


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