Surrounded by saltbush, red earth, dust and flies, 21-year-old Amy Bartjes wondered if her decision to move to Whyalla on the Eyre Peninsula had been such a good idea. The steelworks and shipbuilding city of the 1960s was a stark contrast to the lush, tropical surrounds of her home on the island of Mindoro in the Philippines and she was desperately missing her family and friends.
It was only her passion to become a nurse – and her belief that God had sent her there for a reason – that stopped her from leaving.
“Nursing gave me a focus,” she recalled. “I had never been homesick in all my life until I came to do this training and I was so very, very homesick.
“I was missing my friends and family… and I said to my mother ‘I am going home’, but she told me ‘no, you have to finish your nursing’.”
And so she did… going on to carve an impressive career in South Australian nursing – as a practitioner, educator and researcher – always mindful that her love of God should be translated in her care of patients and their families.
Today, after more than five decades in Australia and with Adelaide her “home”, Amy continues to help others, particularly those from the Filipino community, through her work as a nurse and by living her strong Catholic faith which was part of her upbringing.
Raised in the Occidental Mindoro province, Amy was one of eight children – although her youngest sister was born much later after she had already moved to Australia. (In fact, it was to be eight years before Amy would eventually meet her youngest sibling which perhaps contributed to her early bouts of homesickness in Whyalla.)
With a father away for long stretches due to his work as a forest ranger and her mother busy looking after their large family, Amy spent much of her childhood in the company of her grandmother, typifying the way Filipinos embrace the extended family.
“My grandmother was an important part of my life,” she said, adding the older woman played a part in her slightly unusual faith journey as a child.
“I was baptised in the Catholic Church but my grandmother, although Catholic, had a friend who was a pastor in a protestant church and she used to take me to church with her. Just to keep me quiet the pastor used to give me a booklet with pictures and I would memorise some of the verses.
“By the time I went to high school the (Catholic) parish priest did not think I was really, really Catholic and thought I should be re-baptised – but I did do very well in the religion class because I knew all the verses,” she laughed.
She also recalled as a child hearing her grandmother wake at 3am each day to start her prayers and how every morning in the month of May children from her town would be collected by the catechists and taken to the local church where they would offer a bunch of flowers to the statue of Our Lady and sing the Hail Mary in Spanish.
Amy’s devotion to Our Lady continued when, as an adult, she visited the town of Fatima where the three shepherd children had their apparitions.
This experience had a profound impact – and when she returned to Australia together with three other families set up a monthly first Saturday rosary within the Filipino community. This has been a labour of love for the past 42 years, with collections from the gatherings going to the Philippine General Hospital and distributed to parents who cannot afford to pay for the medical expenses of their children with cancer.
Amy’s call to help others came early in life while she was still at school.
“When I was in high school we were encouraged to visit the sick in hospital and I met this Filipino who went to America on an (nursing) exchange and she told me what they did and she inspired me. Also my first book given to me by my father was G.I. Nightingale about nurses looking after the sick soldiers. I thought that was nice and one day I would do that!”
However, her family’s finances couldn’t stretch to university studies, so after hearing there was a shortage of nurses in Australia, she and her friend Lou applied to various hospitals for a placement.
“I continuously prayed to get accepted and the first hospital to get back to me was Whyalla. I had no idea where it was, but I agreed to go.”
Amy arrived in Australia on August 15 1965 – not sure what her new life would bring, but determined to become a nurse and follow God’s plan for her.
Her training at the Whyalla Hospital was demanding and although she had been told not to fraternise with the local men she did meet her future husband Werner, a German who had migrated to work in the Steel City.
After several years they moved to Adelaide, where Amy trained as a midwife and cared for premature babies, as well as patients who were at the end of their life. It was the latter which struck a chord with her vocation and her faith.
“In hospice care you have to have a good attitude about life and death… that is the circle of life. You really have to have your faith with you and it does help you. In nursing it is very important to have faith. If you do not have faith how do you cope with cancer and dying patients?”
Over the years her studies continued and she became a nurse educator, imparting her wisdom and experience of caring for others to young nurses. She taught and attended conferences and workshops around the world and also helped to set up the School of Nursing at the Hosanna International College in Rostrevor. Today she continues caring for others through her involvement with Breast Cancer Care and educating Filipino women about the importance of having regular breast, cervical and bowel screenings.
As has been the case throughout her life, she also continues to be an active member of the Church. After 20 years in various roles at St Paul of the Cross Church at Blackwood she is now a commentator, liturgical minister, special minister of the Eucharist and led a Lenten discussion group recently at St Pius X Church at Dernancourt. For the past 38 years she has hosted a program for the Filipino community on Ethnic Radio 5EBI FM.
At age 73 Amy sees no reason to slow down and continues to play an active role in the lives of her two daughters, five grandchildren and two great grandsons… all the while nurturing that link to their Filipino heritage that remains close to her heart.Jump to next article