A Great Foundation For My Professional Life

I commenced a four year degree at the University of Queensland in 1962, having successfully obtained a Commonwealth Scholarship, which paid student fees and a means tested living away from home allowance. UQ commenced the physiotherapy degree program in the early 1950s in parallel with a three year Diploma course that commenced in 1938. Our year had nine students, the largest degree cohort at that time.

Our first year was a pure science year and we took classes with students from many faculties. For me, the most memorable lecturer in that year was Professor Bill Stephensen, Professor of Zoology who was, I believe, a world authority on the liver fluke. Apart from being very strict about being on time for his classes, he also demonstrated enthusiasm for his subject and humility in the extent of his knowledge. In a laboratory class, while we were peering down a microscope and looking at a liver fluke, he called the class to attention to share with us that he had just seen something on a student’s slide that he had never seen before.

Second year involved a lot of travelling for classes. Physiology was held in George St (now the Gardens Point campus of the Queensland University of Technology). Physiotherapy classes were held in the Huts at Victoria Park across the road from the Medical School at Herston. The Huts were left over from World War II and were well past their use by date, requiring many buckets when it rained. In contrast, the Anatomy Building at St Lucia was very new, and woe betide any student wearing stiletto heels if Professor Hickey caught you. Occasional classes were held at the Brisbane General Hospital (now RBWH) and the Princess Alexandra Hospital. We were to become very familiar with these and other hospitals and facilities once we commenced clinical practice in third and fourth year.

The Brisbane City Council ceased concession bus fares for students in 1961; we often walked further to catch a bus than we needed to, so we could save tuppence or threepence (pre-decimal 2d or 3d) on the fare. For those of us living away from home, money was tight and there were few opportunities for casual employment, except babysitting. Fortunately, there were a few students with cars, so we packed in for the ride from St Lucia. Seat belts were optional and only in the front seats, so there was no limit to the number of passengers.

In final year, classes started in January and didn’t finish until early December; in this time, we undertook clinical practice where we gained the necessary hands on skills to treat patients effectively. We were fortunate to have excellent role models among the university’s physiotherapy staff, who challenged us to learn from every patient experience and to use a problem-based learning approach, long before it became popular.

The university year was three terms, with exams in November. There were no photocopiers and many hours were spent in the library making notes in preparation for assignments. These were handwritten and cut and paste with scissors and glue.

I worked for one year in 1966 at the Princess Alexandra Hospital in Brisbane. My rotations in Burns and Spinal Injuries were extremely valuable in my later career. In 1967, I was invited to be a Demonstrator for one year in the Physiotherapy Department at UQ on the understanding that I would go overseas to get more experience. I went to India as the first step on the Kathmandu to London bus trip, but came under the spell of India, and stayed there, working for four years at the Christian Medical College and Hospital in Ludhiana, Punjab. During that time, I learned the importance of the preventative side of Physiotherapy, particularly in the management of hand injuries, other orthopaedic trauma, burns, polio, and leprosy. I helped establish a Spinal Injuries Unit, and towards the end of my second year there, found myself in charge of 14 physiotherapy students who were undertaking a 2½ year Diploma in Physiotherapy.

I returned to Brisbane in 1972 to take up a lecturing position at UQ, where I stayed for just over five years. I completed a degree in Educational Studies during that time, despite some opposition to a non-school teacher enrolling in the course. In February 1977, I was part of an Australian Medical Team that spent six months in Lebanon during a lull in the civil war and I used my expertise in the Spinal Injuries Rehabilitation Centre, which was being established.

I then spent four years working as a senior lecturer at the Ulster Polytechnic in Belfast, Northern Ireland during the time of the hunger strikes. While these places often made the news headlines, day to day working life was much the same as anywhere else. Returning to Australia, I took up a position at Royal Brisbane Hospital, subsequently the Royal Brisbane and Women’s Hospital as Director of Physiotherapy, until I retired in 2011. I served for 18 years on the Physiotherapists’ Board of Queensland. This led to an opportunity to chair the Australian Examining Committee for Overseas Physiotherapists, putting into practice both my overseas experience and academic background.

Overseas travel has increased since I retired and I have started spending two to three weeks each year back in Ludhiana, India. A great delight for me has been catching up with a former patient 45 years after I first treated him as a 14-year-old paraplegic, and also meeting with two former students who still live in Ludhiana.

My four years as a student at UQ gave me a great foundation for my professional life, which has always been interesting and fulfilling.

Elaine Unkles OAM. BPhty (Hons) 1965, BEdSt, BBus (Health Admin) FCHSE CDec. Kelvin Grove, Brisbane.