Nurse enriched lives as her skills grew




6-5-41 - 31-12-12

Coralie Mathews, who has died from complications of breast cancer, was widely admired for her insight, her empathy, and her passion for social justice, early childhood education and Aboriginal health. She lived her life to the full with a generosity of spirit and a compassion that few could emulate; she valued her children, family and friends, she enjoyed poetry, literature, music, art and travel, and she turned every new challenge into another opportunity to enrich her own life and the lives of others.

Coralie was born at Port Lincoln in South Australia, as the first child of Ken Chatfield, a Baptist minister, and Gwen (nee Pudney). As the family moved successively to Georgetown, Peterborough, Gumeracha, Mount Gambier, and later to Melbourne, Coralie absorbed from her parents the values that were to guide her through life. She read widely, and soon learnt about the world beyond the country towns of childhood. She remembered her father telling her about Mahatma Ghandi when his death was reported on ABC radio in 1948. She also remembered ABC schools broadcasts, particularly the voice of H.D. Black, with his weekly Notes on the News, explaining world affairs. Forty years later she met Sir Hermann Black and, hearing his long-remembered voice, was transported back to her country classroom and to the smell of the peppercorn trees outside.

Coralie was an excellent student, with a love of music acquired from her father. At Mount Gambier High School she enjoyed the choral society and the debating team, and she was athletics champion in 1955-56. Later in 1956, the family moved to Victoria, and Coralie started at Coburg High School, where she first met John Mathews, who from 1959 would be her lifelong partner. Coralie completed her Leaving Certificate in 1957, but as an intelligent girl from a poor family, her only options to continue education were through a teaching bursary or by training as a nurse. She supplemented the family income as an electrocardiogram technician at Royal Melbourne Hospital (RMH) until she was old enough to start nursing in 1959. Although nursing was demanding and disciplined, she valued the responsibility, the new knowledge, and the challenges of helping patients and families deal with illness and death. She enjoyed the camaraderie of the Connibere Nurses Home, and made lifelong friends.

Coralie married John in 1962, and they honeymooned in an old shack at Marlo on the Snowy River, reading and exploring the modest stock of certainties that they would share in 50 years of marriage. Coralie worked as a staff nurse at RMH until John finished his medical course in 1964. Their first child, Mark, was born in 1965. Between 1966 and 1968, the family lived at Okapa, in Papua New Guinea, where John co-ordinated Australian research on kuru, a degenerative disease peculiar to PNG. Coralie worked with the local women, assisted with surgical emergencies at the Okapa hospital, welcomed many visitors, and in between-times went to Goroka to give birth to Victoria (1966), and Sarah (1967).

Back in Melbourne (1968-72) Coralie, working part-time at the RMH and with the University of Melbourne's childcare centre, joined with the Carlton Association and the Builders Labourers Federation to stop the destruction of Carlton terraces, and marched in Vietnam War protests. When the family moved to Oxford (1972-75), Coralie worked at Headington Secondary Modern, established life-long friendships with Oxford colleagues, and organised summer camping holidays in Europe to enjoy the art and cultural treasures that she had previously only read about. After returning to Melbourne, she lectured in nursing before enrolling at La Trobe University as a mature-age student under the Whitlam scheme; she loved that opportunity to study English, history and philosophy, although she also nursed at night to help pay school fees. She completed teacher training at Burwood, and taught early childhood and health education at Box Hill TAFE, where by 1984 she was a much-loved head of department.

In 1985 Coralie moved to Darwin with John, who was inaugural director of the Menzies School of Health Research. She worked first as a high-school teacher, and then at Menzies to provide health and education support for Aboriginal staff, before moving to the Northern Territory University's faculty of education, where she recreated the Box Hill ethos, teaching an integrated course of health and safety and life skills to her childcare students. Coralie was also the linchpin of social life at Menzies, and its spinoff organisation, the Co-operative Research Centre for Aboriginal Health; she organised barbecues for staff, helped new arrivals settle in, and welcomed all visitors into the family home. Without fuss, she also helped friends and students deal with crises in their lives.

After 15 years in Darwin, Coralie and John moved to Canberra, where Coralie completed her textbook, Healthy Children - A Guide for Child Care, and recreated her career once more, first as an asthma educator, and then as child and youth health advocate for the Australian Medical Association, where she organised a national conference on child abuse. Coralie and John returned to Melbourne in 2004, where she worked part-time, first with Kidsafe, and then on McCaughey Centre projects to deal with childhood obesity and oral health in the northern suburbs. She loved getting back into schools, inspiring students and teachers alike, and making new friends. She especially enjoyed meeting mothers and training health educators from diverse cultural backgrounds. Coralie was also a much-loved volunteer in the family resource centre at the Royal Children's Hospital.

In later years, Coralie and John were able to travel together to China, New York, east and west Africa; to London on many occasions; to the Royal Society to celebrate the end of kuru; to New Guinea for a nostalgic two weeks of teaching at the local school, covering topics as diverse as Blake poetry and safe sex; to St Petersburg, Moscow and on the trans-Siberian railway, camping in Mongolia; to Greece; to Paris, Berlin, Dresden and Prague. She particularly valued her last trip to London, in December 2011, when she introduced Jessy, her eldest granddaughter, to the delights of her favourite city.

In 2006, Coralie was diagnosed with breast cancer, which responded well to treatment. After cancer recurred in May last year, she bore her symptoms and a second course of radiotherapy with quiet dignity, aware she was on borrowed time.

She and John celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary with family and many old friends on December 1, and enjoyed a warm family Christmas.

Coralie is survived by John, Mark, Victoria and Sarah, her brothers Geoffrey, Bruce and Peter, by five grandchildren and wider family. She will be long remembered through her insightful textbook, through the many people who respected and loved her, and through the example of a life well lived.

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