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Vol 38  No 15
June 8, 2006


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Oration honouring Kathleen Matthews

Today we celebrate the leadership of Kay Matthews, until recently associate professor in Memorial’s School of Nursing, whose pioneering work in maternal and child health is a vivid practical testament to the ethics of care.

Professional caring, as Kay Matthews models it, you graduates today know to be a difficult and tough-minded discipline, because it requires the best available knowledge and know-how (which you have been slaving to command); but also full attention to others, respect for vulnerability; and the imagination and courage to instigate change: all of these Kay Matthews has in abundance.

She also excels, though she would never tell you, at bridge, important to know as you step out, because she firmly believes in recreation as balance; but especially because her caring is balanced, her wicked strategic sense of the cards others hold and how they’ll play them always serving her great gifts of understanding and connection.

Kay Matthews arrived in St. John’s in 1967 with her husband Keith, a historian: she had two babies, two diplomas (nursing and midwifery), two kinds of professional experience, and about two thousand good ideas for tackling a new situation. Observing a need, she started a vigorous cottage industry: coaching pregnant women in techniques which would give them control over labour and see their babies arrive healthy, alert, and not drunk on demerol. (The dads, attending with Kay’s blessing, were the ones who needed the demerol.)

This family support Kay Matthews undertook at a time when interventions in birth and in lactation were almost automatic: mothers might not even be consulted or offered choices. So as well as a throng of grateful parents, Kay’s outreach seeded change: before long she was making a career co-ordinating case rooms and nurseries.

Then from the Grace and St. Clare’s to Memorial, where she educated the next generation of nurses to support women in labour and breast-feeding, winning awards for excellence as she went, and dedicating her own research to infant nutrition and women’s reproductive health.

By now, though, the secret was out. Memorial had secured an expert with the vision and praxis needed for new international projects in parts of the world where mothers were still dying to give birth. In Indonesia, as project director, Kay built networks, that started conversations, that still spread outwards, from 25 nursing faculty and graduate students in Djakarta, to include the scores of nurses and para-professionals in villages, whose caring tends the future. Today, at Waru Jaya, there’s a busy centre for birthing and education; the project has just been endorsed by government as the model for rural Indonesia; and Kay Matthews is Ibu Kay, the woman who made the difference.

She has made a difference too in Africa, working with MaterCare in Nigeria and Ghana since 1991. If birthing in Indonesia is compromised by poverty and malnutrition, in Africa it is compromised by gender: women often begin childbearing so early that the pelvis is not fully grown, labour is obstructed, babies die, and mothers, suffering obstetric fistula, become chronically incontinent, and are often abandoned.

Kay Matthews travelled to scattered villages to educate practitioners and mothers, fearless even in the midst of menace, in a broken-down car, on a mud road, in the season when men proclaim their dominance by mass marching, shouting and drumming, a story she tells, without heroics, as what you have to expect. Graduates in nursing and medicine, is there a conversation waiting to happen with the men of rural Africa, which your excellent education has prepared you to engage?

Mr. Vice-Chancellor, birth was said by the cynic Ambrose Bierce to be the first and direst of all life’s disasters. Excuse him, for he had not met Ibu Kay, whose favourite poet is Gerard Manley Hopkins: “Not, I’ll not, carrion comfort, Despair, feast on thee.” Whatever the obstacles or terrors, Kay Matthews has played the cards of brilliant team-building and belief in activism for change, and has made seven no trump: averting despair, and bringing hope of birth, health and harvest.

For the contract she has honoured with the vulnerable of the earth, please confer the degree of doctor of laws, honoris causa, on Mary Kathleen Matthews.

Jean Guthrie
University orator

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