THE sheer breadth of Joan Bremner’s contributions and responsibilities at Brisbane’s Mater Hospital over 40 years of service verges on the astounding.
But it is the manner in which she treated everyone with the respect and dignity they deserved that has resonated so vividly with the staff and patients who will miss her presence in the halls.
Joan is a product of her journey, a unique story that embedded her with the virtues she went on to share with others.
Joan was brought up with strong Catholic influences in her life.
Her parents Eric and Molly Whitehouse raised Joan and her siblings as a Catholic family, and she was further exposed to the importance of faith as a student at All Hallows’ School, Brisbane.
It was 1973 when Joan first stepped into the Mater family, studying and living at the hospital as a student midwife.
She became a registered nurse in 1975, when a new chapter of her life would begin; his name was John.
John Bremner loved rugby union and loved Joan; together the Villanova teacher, Easts Tigers player and coach and his wife spent the next 13 years concentrating on raising their growing family.
Upon reflection the Bremners did an outstanding job with all three of their children who achieved great success in adult life.
Catherine is head of sustainable finance solutions for ANZ, Michael is an associate professor and future fellow at the Centre for Quantum Computation and Intelligent Systems at the University of Technology, Sydney, and Anthony works at the Department of Defence, after recently completing his masters.
The Bremners’ success can’t be put down to luck, they are surely a product of their environment, of caring, hard work and giving of oneself.
As the kids grew older Joan’s desire to “give something back” to the world grew stronger and in 1988 she found herself undertaking her ecumenical hospital chaplaincy studies at the Holy Spirit Northside Hospital.
Moving into pastoral care was a pivotal moment for Joan, accepting the role of pastoral care worker at the Mater in 1990, a move that moulded her personal growth.
“It gave me a platform to contribute; it was something where I could really just give myself up for someone else,” Joan said.
“Despite my Catholic background it was never about evangelisation, more the love and message you bring.
“I treated patients of all faiths and made sure I never pushed religion on anyone, just let them know I was there.”
For 17 years Joan made herself available and familiarised herself with countless colleagues and patients in her new role.
She didn’t care if they were an electrician or a surgeon, an old man or a young girl, she knew her job, she was there for everyone.
While juggling regular work duties Joan also assumed the role as the Human Research Ethics Committee’s minister of religion, again a trailblazer as the first lay woman to assume the position, meeting the criteria through her ecumenical studies.
Joan was adamant the time she’d spent and the people she’d met in pastoral care had profound impact on her life.
“The other women in pastoral care, they’ve seen what I’ve seen, been with patients and families, walked their journeys,” she said.
Joan’s tenure lasted from 1990 until 2007, a time when she openly admits the demands of the job had begun to take its toll on her, understandable considering the personal rollercoaster she had been through.
John had a battle with cancer which he eventually lost in 2002, a harrowing time for the family when Joan struggled with her own health issues as she came to grips with this devastating loss.
“It was horrible, but he was himself right up until the end. He coached a game of rugby a week before he passed away,” she said.
Clearly the Bremner trait of putting others first had not only fallen with Joan. From 2002, the players’ player award at Easts rugby club has been known as the John Bremner Award, in honour of a man who anyone would have been willing to play for or alongside.
Joan proudly attends the Easts function each year to present the accolade in memory of her husband.
The loss of John is a void that can’t ever be filled, but the way in which Joan has continued to live and grow is remarkable.
“I made an effort to never be bitter about it. I’d seen what bitterness could do to people through my pastoral work and while I never begrudged anyone for feeling that way I didn’t want to be like that,” she said.
So Joan kept busy, primarily through her decision to start university studies in 2002, a move that would ignite an initiative Joan is still passionate about.
“It really opened my eyes to the challenges mature-age students face,” she said. “Living it first hand, struggling with the online content and the general university experience made me feel someone had to help.”
It was in 2010 that Joan began to realise her vision of helping fellow mature-age students when she started donating her own money and collecting funds for the Just Joan Book Scholarship, where all funds went towards the purchase of text books for mature-age students.
Joan said the first applicants had been chosen and the grants dispersed in 2015.
Joan’s career shifted into communications at the Mater in 2007.
She had given all she had to offer in her pastoral role and was the perfect candidate to connect and educate staff in clinical and fundraising areas.
With her scholarship established and interests outside the hospital, including time as a Brisbane City Botanic Garden tour guide and chairperson of Our Lady of Mount Carmel parish pastoral council, Coorparoo, after 27 years of service beginning in 1973, Joan decided to step away from the Mater.
“It was hard, but I just didn’t want to be in a hurry anymore,” she said. “I think it’s really important for retirees to find their new structure in life, offer something to the world in another way.
“The thing I’ll miss the most is walking through the halls and being stopped every 50 metres for someone to say ‘hi’ – all the people.”
Joan doesn’t quite understand all the fuss about her leaving, but she is coming to grips with the impact she has had.
“It really has been very humbling; the staff organised a morning tea and more than 60 people turned up,” she said.
“Chief executive officer of the Mater Foundation Nigel Harris said something in his speech that really meant a lot; he said ‘Joan really lives in the spirit of the Mater’.”
For someone who had given so much of herself to a single entity these words meant the world to Joan; she knew she had achieved something, simply by giving of herself.
Joan likes to use the phrase greatness has been thrust upon her, often falling into positions of prominence rather than seeking them. The word “greatness” and Joan Bremner clearly have a close association.
– Isaac Murphy