Phaik Kee Teoh was born near the mouth of the Perak River in Malaya on the eve of the Pacific War.
She spent her babyhood in the jungle where the women had to hide to escape the predatory behaviour of undisciplined enemy soldiers.
Her birth registration shows she was the second twin. Because of harsh conditions in jungle life, she was fed on rice gruel; there was no milk.
According to what she told me, there was not much else either.
Phaik Kee’s parents were staunch Buddhists. Her father, Teoh Beng Guan, visited the Chinese Temple every morning. Her mother, Quah Poh Sim, nurtured 13 children.
The surviving children have made their own journey in life, each contributing in a significant way to the community in which they locally live, whether Malaysia, England, Canada or, in Phaik Kee’s case, Australia.
Phaik Kee completed her schooling in Teluk Intan. She was one of the inaugural trainee nurses at the Franciscan nuns’ newly established Assunta Hospital in Kuala Lumpur, from which she graduated in 1964.
Her teachers, Sister Madonna, now of New South Wales, and Sister Brenda, now of Queensland, told me in these past few days that they are deeply saddened at her passing.
Phaik Kee gained a Certificate of Thoracic Nursing at the Lady Templar Hospital in Petaling Jaya.
She then graduated in Midwifery after attending Falkirk Royal Infirmary and the Queen Mother’s Hospital in Glasgow, both of Scotland.
At the prestigious Hammersmith Hospital in London, Phaik Kee undertook a postgraduate theatre course and gained her certificate in 1969.
This well-qualified young Chinese woman then worked at hospitals in Kuala Lumpur, including the Pantai Medical Centre.
Phaik Kee arrived in Australia in 1975, which was not long after the prejudicial White Australia Policy was lifted.
But residual prejudice against the Chinese appeared to linger when she was told there were no vacancies at Melbourne’s Queen Victoria Hospital.
One leading surgeon who happened also to be on the Board of that hospital, in passing overheard Phaik Kee say “Hammersmith Hospital” and told her privately to turn up at his theatre and that he would authorise the paperwork.
She did that and went on to receive a promotion to Charge Nurse, and all of the initially discriminating girls became lifelong friends – even expressing their sorrow to me at her final fight for life, as late as last week.
Most of Phaik Kee’s working life was professionally fashioned in the Queen Victoria Hospital, which became the Monash Medical Centre when it shifted from the city to the university precincts at Clayton.
Phaik Kee did not drive. So when I came to pick her up one morning after the end of her shift, I saw a ghost-like figure standing on the front porch.
As duty nurse, during the night she had faced three emergencies occurring simultaneously: the first, a heart attack case; the second, an accident demanding brain surgery; and the third requiring an immediate Caesarean delivery.
Methodically, Phaik Kee raised the three surgeons “on call” and the essential “on call” staff to assist them, then set about preparing three operating theatres for surgery.
In a seemingly hopeless endeavour, Sr Teoh demonstrated a night nurse at her administrative best. On that night, Phaik Kee saved three lives.
From a wide pool of nursing talent, Phaik Kee was chosen to assist the pioneer surgeon flown in from Adelaide to perform Australia’s first in-utero operation, that is, carrying out a procedure on a foetus inside the womb. The operation performed in camera was a success.
Phaik Kee told me, however, that some time later the foetus died in the ward from a cause not to do with the techniques of the procedure.
(Phaik Kee entered the Church on Pentecost Sunday, May 19, 1991, being baptised, making her First Reconciliation, First Communion and Confirmation all on the one occasion. She had made her decision while her husband Joseph was overseas at the Marian shrine of Lourdes in France and had rung him to tell him she wanted to be baptised. She subsequently went on to serve as a special minister of the Eucharist at St Francis’ Church in the CBD of Melbourne. – Editor)
Looking at this small sampling of Phaik Kee’s life’s work, one can see we are dealing with a dedicated woman.
Her commitment came from prayer – daily prayer before her own shrine in our home, of crucifix, pyx and picture of the Sacred Heart.
She carried Our Lady’s scapulas everywhere in her small operating theatre security purse, and this deeply spiritual woman displayed a number of pictures, two of which were Our Lady of Perpetual Help and the Grotto of Lourdes.
Phaik Kee’s life may be characterised as that of a good woman who loved God and gave strength, support and willing service to the members of our great human family – with love.
The above slightly-edited eulogy was delivered by Phaik Kee’s husband, Joseph Sutherland, at her funeral at Good Shepherd Parish in Kelmscott