Bev Cooney's Story - Chasing Dreams in Peru

06 Nov 2013

Walking through a hospital, one could be forgiven for not having their wits about them. There are clinicians and nurses darting this way and that, patients being ferried from one ward to another and concerned visitors anxiously making their way to the nearest information desk to find the whereabouts of their loved one. In this beehive of activity, there is rarely a minute to slow down and take in what’s happening around you. So slow down, and take a minute to read this.

Last month Bev Cooney, an Enrolled Nurse at Westmead Hospital, received the Medal of the Order of Australia. One would automatically assume such an award would be directly aligned with her profession. But Bev’s story is much more than that.

Bev has been a nurse for 47 years, spending most of her time working in children’s hospitals. In 2003, Bev accomplished one of her lifelong dreams of travelling to Peru in South America. She walked the Inca trail, visited untouched rainforests and saw some of the finest sites that part of the world has to offer. But the best thing she did, in her own words, was visit a “big kid’s hospital”.

“Like everybody else in Australia I thought we had nothing in our hospitals, but I soon realised we had everything. So I decided that I should help these people,” Bev said.

 

Bev didn’t just “help”. In 2006, she founded a school and rehabilitation centre that provides medical care and education for children and adults with disabilities and their families. She raised funds for the construction of the school and rehabilitation centre including using some of her own superannuation payout.

“The year after my first visit I took a team of surgeons, anaesthetists and nurses and we worked in the big kid’s hospital in Lima for a little while. From there we went out to the jungle with a team of local doctors to a town called Satipo, which had a 19 bed hospital, but while we were there I saw 500 kids that were disabled who could not go to school. They were not permitted to go to school,” Bev said.

This really worried her. As a nurse working with disabled kids every day in Australia, it was inconceivable to see them marginalised in another part of the world. Disabled adults also fell victim to the community’s pre-conditioned view that these adults have been punished by the gods and therefore must suffer. So in 2005, Bev began to make some enquiries.

“In 2005 I went back twice to see what it would take to build a school there. I worked out approximately what it would cost, and that I could do it with my super. So I came home and retired in 2006 and I went back and built a school for 100 kids and a house for myself to live,” Bev said.

Bev started working with the Mayor of the town and managed to acquire a place for the adult disabled and taught them how to sow and started a factory. They now make clothes and sell them in the markets, and more importantly, are no longer living on the streets.

Her extraordinary accomplishments have not come without some obstacles. Bev has been shot at, kidnapped, extorted and belittled but this has not stopped her in her quest. She’s had to return to work to continue funding the centre and move to Sydney to take on the role, but she says it has all been worth it.

Next year Bev is taking a team of plastic surgeons, anaesthetists and nurses to Satipo to operate on children who are born with cleft palates. She hopes it will inspire more volunteers to share their knowledge and time for those who need it most.

In time, Bev yearns to live in her home in Satipo permanently, but now she is happy to continue her work both in Australia and Peru. Her compassion for the children of Satipo is heart-warming, and her unassuming, humble nature is inspiring. So next time you’re hurrying through a hospital take a second to slow down, because you might just pass someone as remarkable as Bev.