She is 80 and her zest for life is undimmed. The eyes are bright and miss very little and the wisdom of years tempers the energy that sparkles from that tiny frame. Malamateniah Koutsada has not only written a book in her latter years but she continues to commute five times a fortnight from Melton to Sunshine’s Acute Psychiatric Unit in Sunshine where she continues to work long past an age where most people ar e long retired.
It’s demanding work but she is well up for it. Circumstances, a failed marriage and tight financial circumstances forced back to work in 2004. She has long since worked her way out of her problems and has bought her new home in Melton which she is currently renovating – she is doing “a fair bit of the work” herself with help of her daughter, Miranda, who lives close by.
She continues to work as a psychiatric nurse not because she has to but because she wants to.
“I keep working because I love it, I dread the time I have to retire,” she said. “After health, independence is important, then wealth.”
“Sometimes I may be a bit tired when I get up, but when I get to work, I get a new lease of life. I don’t want to stay at home and be looked after.”
Nursing has been a vocation that she came to quite late in her life.
She left Greece , aged 21, having completed a dressmaking apprenticeship and armed only with primary school education. Her independent streak was strong even then because she completed her own application to come to Australia and determined from the outset to learn English and complete her high school education. In later years she was also to study Spanish and French.
Even after marriage in 1961, and the birth of her children, Ms Koutsada pursued her dream. She successfully finished her Year 12 as an older scholar in a Port Moresby high School. Her first husband, a teacher, had been posted to Papua New Guinea where they were to spend a few years with their two children, Miranda and Timotheos.
Ms Koutsada then worked as a clerk in an engineering firm but after three years decided she wanted to do something else. She had always wanted to be a teacher but could not find the opportunity in Greece and nursing was her second love.
When the family moved back to Canberra, at 35 years of age, she enrolled into a three-year nursing course. After passing her final exams, she worked as a general ward nurse and later studied for a year to become a midwife. She did not like midwifery and was not satisfied with general nursing.
She did her pshychiatric nursing training in 1980 and worked at Larundel Hospital before moving to Heidelberg where she worked as general ward and a psychiatric nurse. She realized that psychiatric nursing most fulfilled her.
In the general ward, she said, patients were there for a limited time and then were gone once the treatment was over.
“You get the patient with a mental illness and under the influence of drugs coming to the psychiatric ward – they are angry, they curse and ill treat us because they do not want to be there.
“But by the time they leave, they hug and thank us. It is a very satisfying job because not only do I get to know the patients but also their families and help them through their pain,” said Ms Koutsada.
“You get patients staying for a week and some stay for six months. Some go as soon as they are clear of drugs. The patients stay as long as it takes to improve. The family also decides if the patient is okay to go home.
Her age and diminutive size also help in tight situations on the job.
“My (life) experience and my age help in this job. If we admit a big, argumentative guy then I go in to smooth things as I am not seen as a threat. A lot of them call me ‘mum’ and some even call me ‘grandmother’.
“When they get better, they put their arms around me and say ‘Sorry I was such an arsehole, when I first came in’.
“Psychiatric nursing made me realise how happy I am as a parent. You want your children to be rich and handsome and you do not ever think they should also be healthy. If you are healthy, you can create wealth but if you are not healthy, wealth cannot help you. Mental illness is the hardest illness that can hit anyone.
While she will deal with Greek patients many of them are young and have mental or drug related problems. Most are second or third generation and are mainly English speakers.
“We do get Greeks but also Aussies, people from European countries, Vietnamese and other groups. The wards can be very cosmopolitan,” she said.