Photo of Shirley Nelson (right) and Nan Pulsford (left)

Pruning shears in hand, Shirley Nelson steps back from the garden bed and surveys her work.

She considers the shape of the newly pruned plant and smiles. Everything in order, just the way she likes it.

“I’m a big picture person”, she laughs, and “all the details have to contribute to the overall effect, you have to bring the different elements together as harmoniously as you can.”

Shirley’s referring to her beautiful two acres of garden, but just as easily she could be summing up one of the key facets of her own life: the ability to bring people together to get things done.

“Now that I’m eighty – despite not feeling it! – I need to prioritise a bit more. I like to think through what I really want to achieve and then set about getting it done. I’ve always had a good work ethic and I’ve never been shy about asking people to help.”

“I’m also more and more aware of the way people have helped me in my life. First and foremost there is my friend and companion of fifty years, Nan Pulsford. I met Nan when I arrived in Australia to teach midwifery at Hobart Hospital. We just clicked and we’ve been best friends ever since.”

Shirley Nelson is a formidable figure in her home community of Byron Bay on the NSW far north coast. Arriving in 1970, the English-trained nursing Sister was appointed as Matron of Byron Hospital and immediately began transforming the hospital and health care across the region.

“I have always loved a challenge. In fact, I think I thrive in those situations where we really have to solve a problem and we need a team to do it. I’m a people person, I know that, and I love tackling those jobs that others have said are not possible.”

“I suppose I’m tenacious in that way. When I became Matron I wanted to upgrade not only the look of Byron Hospital but also the way the staff were trained, and the way the hospital linked in with the wider community. We engaged so many people to help raise funds and generally improve the hospital precinct. From the Pink Ladies Auxiliary to the bucket and spade brigade who volunteered when physical work was required.”

“Back when George Feros started to push the idea for a high quality residential aged care facility here in the Bay, I don’t think many people took him seriously. But I could see there was a real need for a first-class aged care facility and I set about making it happen. I started in August 1979 and I was there when we opened Feros Village in 1990.”

Shirley’s impact was felt way beyond Byron Hospital. “Matron Shirley” became a prominent and recognisable member of the community.

“It’s a wonderful feeling to be walking around the streets of Byron Bay, which, of course, has changed immensely since we first arrived – and to still be greeted everywhere as “Matron”.

These changes haven’t dented Shirley’s commitment to the recently opened new Byron Central Hospital, for which she has worked for over a quarter of century. “I’m just part of a concerted community effort, and many people have contributed, so it’s wonderful to see the work become a reality.”

On a visit to the new hospital as part of a community open day, the current Director of Nursing, Kerryn York, embraced Shirley. Shirley had appointed Kerryn to her first nursing job a generation earlier and both now hugged and shared a laugh over a dream realised.

But, perhaps surprisingly, Shirley doesn’t put her stellar career in nursing as her greatest achievement.

“No, despite what many people would think, there’s something more significant than nursing, and that’s Feros Care. It really is. The fact is, I was tenacious enough to see that project through from beginning to end, where many fell by the wayside.”

“Back when George Feros started to push the idea for a high quality residential aged care facility here in the Bay, I don’t think many people took him seriously. But I could see there was a real need for a first-class aged care facility and I set about making it happen. I started in August 1979 and I was there when we opened Feros Village in 1990.”

Now that’s she reached her ninth decade, Shirley Nelson grudgingly admits to slowing down a little, at least in the garden. A wry smile spreads across her face as the admission is squeezed out, “Yes, yes, sometimes I concede that I can’t do nine hours in the garden, so I come in and read or listen to music. Possibly my favourite activities!”

We turn to the topic of wisdom. What is it, and how do you get it? Shirley’s brow furrows momentarily, as she ponders the question.

“Well, I certainly think good friends are fundamental. However, I’ve always felt that friendship has to be earned. It’s not a given. You have to work at friendship, you have to give something back, and I’ve always tried to be mindful of that.”

“And that’s something that I love about my life now. I have always had the capacity to engage people. I really am happy to be around people, to share ideas and activities. I think I’m a leader, and to me one of the most important aspects of leadership is to inspire and enthuse the people whose help you need.”

Naturally, there’s that big picture again. Just as in her magnificent sub-tropical garden, Shirley Nelson still ensures that every element is in the right place to make a contribution. That’s how things get done.