AT THE opening of Phillip Island’s new health hub on April 21, a quietly spoken elder of Phillip Island was the focus of much attention.
Gwen McRae was in turn nurse, manager and board member of Warley Hospital for 54 years. In the story of the hospital her dedication and work over many decades won the admiration of all who knew her.
She started as a nurse in 1954 and later managed the hospital. Even then, she continued to work as a theatre nurse. “I loved the theatre work with the surgeons – all the things they could do to make people better.”
After Gwen retired from her role as nurse and hospital manager in 1993 she joined the board and was there until Warley closed in early 2008. Gwen, like the rest of the Phillip Island community, felt a great sense of loss.
For long-term residents there was also anger that this once great community asset – which they had donated to, volunteered in and truly valued – was gone.
In the midst of the community sadness and anger over closure, there was heated argument over what should happen to Warley’s residual funds.
When the hospital closed, the board owed $1.9 million plus about $400,000 in staff entitlements. Warley’s 13 bed licences were sold, and the bank sworn valuation of the property was $3.3 million, leaving a balance of $1.4 million.
At Warley’s AGM on September 30, 2008, the president of the board, David Luscombe, reported: “The Board hopes to sell off some of the assets to service the debt, leaving some land and buildings with which to investigate the provision of health services to the community.”
But that’s where it got complicated. The 1923 deed of trust to establish Warley stated that if a hospital ceased to exist the trust proceeds were to go to the Central Council of the Victorian Bush Nursing Association (VBNA). However the Central Council had ceased to exist in 1998.
A dispute then arose between the Warley board and Aged and Community Care Victoria (ACCV), the successor organisation to the Central Council of the VBNA, about the proceeds of the sale ($1.4 million).
After some acrimonious debate a consent order in 2011 determined that ACCV would become the trustee of the remaining funds from Warley Hospital, adding disbelief and anger to the community’s widespread grief at losing their hospital.
Since the closure of Warley there has been a vocal and persistent call for Phillip Island to have its own hospital again.
Many found it hard to accept the complex reasons why a small hospital like Warley could no longer offer a financially viable model of care, in particular the changing landscape of healthcare and the fact that most Phillip Islanders had not chosen to use the hospital in the last decade of its existence.
However, now the legacy of Warley Hospital will live on as funds from the Warley Trust have been dedicated to building Phillip Island’s new Health and Medical Hub, which was formally opened on April 21.
The $5.8 million project, funded jointly by the Federal Government ($2.5 million), the Victorian Government ($2.2 million) and the Warley Trust ($1.1 million) is constructed on land provided by Bass Coast Shire Council, truly a collaborative effort.
It will house the existing community services, which were previously provided by Bass Coast Health from a building in Warley Avenue. These include physiotherapy, counselling, speech pathology, dietetics, alcohol and other drug services, clinical nurse consulting, health promotion, health independence programs, social work and counselling and child, youth and family services.
The Hub will make healthcare accessible for all Island people: those who are disadvantaged; those with complex and chronic health conditions; families and individuals with social needs; and those who are referred for care from local health care providers. Services will be complimentary to other private services. A number of medical consulting suites will be available for use by an increasing range of medical specialists, now consulting, and operating at the Wonthaggi Hospital. An oncologist will be on site one or two days a week.
The Hub has been constructed to allow for further expansion as the population grows and funding becomes available for additional services.
Warley legacy lives on
There will be no babies born and kept warm by an old agar stove in the Hub, but the legacy of Warley will not be forgotten: from the Thompson family who donated the land and building for the cottage hospital to the many families who donated money for the new hospital and aged care annexe, the hundreds of people who served on committees, the auxiliaries, the volunteer ambulance drivers, the dedicated nurses and GPs, the visiting surgeons and obstetricians and the kitchen, cleaning and maintenance staff.
My thanks to the many people who have shared their experiences and memories. I realise this is not the full story of Warley and there will be many others who can add to or modify the words here. I invite all contributions and would particularly enjoy hearing lasting memories of Warley.
This is the second and final part of Mary Whelan's article about health care on Phillip Island.
Part 1: In sickness and in health