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Looking back to Peter Mac’s earliest days

Article reprinted with permission from the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre.

Peter Mac is, this year celebrating its 75th anniversary, EWHS board director and former Peter Mac staff member, Ruth Jabornik recently visited the facility to share her experience with the RT team.

Ruth Jabornik recently walked into a radiotherapy bunker at Peter Mac, and it took her back more than 70 years.

“It’s a totally massive change,” the 91-year-old said, standing alongside a modern radiotherapy machine.

“One of my really vivid memories is of starting up for Peter Mac, in Lonsdale Street, and we had two deep therapy machines in an old army hut. Until then the early treatment units had been at The Royal Melbourne Hospital. Now if you look at this, and this amazing building, it is quite extraordinary.”

Ruth and Robin paused to recreate an old black-and-white photo that Ruth (on the right) had posed for back in 1957.

Ruth joined Peter Mac’s radiotherapy department in 1951, just two years after the then fledgling cancer treatment and research institute was founded.

Peter Mac is this year celebrating its 75th anniversary.

When Ruth started her career, it was a different time both for how cancer – and young professional women – were treated. When she applied for the job, Ruth says she was “interviewed by the doctor, and HR, and they also spoke to my mother”.

“She knew nothing about health what so-ever and I just found it very amusing – she had to be interviewed to see what type of family I came from,” she says.

Ruth says at that time public attitudes around cancer – and its impact on the community – were also very different. It was not uncommon to see patients with severe disfigurements from cancers which today are relatively simple to treat. These patients were cared for in facilities with “horrible” names like the “hospital for the incurably ill’ across Melbourne. Ruth adds the 1950-60s were also an exciting time in cancer treatment, with the arrival of more powerful treating machines and the beginnings of nuclear medicine and chemotherapy.

“Early Peter Mac doctors also joined with passionate medical academics at Melbourne University,” she said, to advance what are mainstay treatments today.

Ruth worked at Peter Mac until 1958, and then returned for a second stint around 1965. She was joined on the recent visit by former colleague Robin Jewell, who also worked at Peter Mac’s radiotherapy department from 1963 to 1971.

“Things have changed hugely,” Robin says, reflecting on how cancer was no longer a taboo. I do remember, and I was 17, knowing that people were very frightened simply because they had a spot on their hand that needed to be treated. I remember the distress among patients … there was much less discussion about the seriousness of the situation and prognosis. It was all about ‘We don’t talk about the big C’.”

Both said their time at Peter Mac shaped their careers, and both went on to roles in counselling services and palliative care. Ruth is still working in healthcare and is currently a Board Director at East Wimmera Health Service. Their careers spanned a period of great change, and Ruth says outcomes for cancer patients have “come a long way – both in survival and side-effects”.

“The facilities we’ve got for people now, and the insight into how people need to be treated, has changed enormously,” she says.

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