Radiation therapists farewell hospital that brought them together

Jenny and Wayne Smith have retired after joining Westmead Hospital’s radiation oncology department in 1980.

It was their first job, the place they met, and their workplace for more than 40 years – but finally the time has come for Wayne and Jenny Smith to leave Westmead Hospital’s radiation oncology department.

The pair arrived at Westmead Hospital straight out of high school in 1980, swapping Orange and Bargo respectively for western Sydney, where they fell in love with the profession and each other.

As radiation therapists their responsibilities for patients receiving cancer treatment have included building radiation shields, administering radiation and producing complex treatment plans.

“I saw an ad in the paper, which was how it worked back then, so I drove down to Westmead on Friday and got the job offer the same day. That weekend I packed up and started my training at Ultimo TAFE on the Monday,” Wayne said.

“They were long days working until 3pm and then going to TAFE until 9pm. But it was great to immediately implement the training and see whether this was a career we could do. And to spend so much time with Jenny.”

Following a brief stint in Tasmania after getting married, the pair applied to return to Westmead Hospital’s rapidly-expanding radiation service in 1984 – needing special permission to work together as a married couple.

They’ve stayed ever since, albeit with Jenny taking an 18-year hiatus to raise their children and work as a teacher’s aide.

Much has changed in the decades since, but they agree the core values of the job remain the same.

“Computerisation changed everything from manual to digital and electronic, and a lot of responsibilities have shifted from the doctors to radiation therapists,” Jenny said.

Patient care remains the number one unchanged aspect. Especially through COVID it’s been more important than ever to care for people who haven’t always been able to have family or a support person with them.

“It’s a patient-based job, not procedure-based. You do form a special relationship.”

Wayne added: “It’s a big responsibility to care for people while they are vulnerable. It’s not just the technical skills – you need empathy. You read their body language, answer the questions they ask and the ones they don’t ask, ease their anxieties, and give them the time they need.

“There are time pressures, but my aim is always for extra patient care. If someone walks out happier, less stressed and more educated then I know I’ve done my job.”

Westmead Hospital director of radiation therapy Jill Harris praised Jenny for her passion for patient care, work ethic and attention to detail, and Wayne for his imagination and ingenuity – which saw him win a Manufacturing Innovation Excellence Award in recognition of his initiative in painting immobilisation masks for children as their favourite characters to help reduce their fear of treatment.

“The department will not be the same without them (who will be Santa now?) and certainly those of us who have worked alongside them for our entire careers will miss them enormously,” Jill said.

“Only one remaining staff member can remember this department prior to their arrival. We thank them for their invaluable input over the decades and wish them every happiness in their retirement!”

The pair said they will miss their colleagues and the mental challenge of the role, but most of all the chance to make a difference to those battling cancer.

“When I was cleaning out my locker and going through my old paperwork, I found a thank you letter from a patient,” Wayne said.

“The impact you have on people stays with you.”