Know thy Friend: Pam Tooth
Judith Pembleton, Queensland Regional Meeting
Most Friends know Pam Tooth as the faithful editor of Qletter who provides information of relevance to Queensland Friends each month.
This month, Pam was guest speaker for the Queensland Quaker Women’s Group which meets by Zoom on the second Tuesdays of the month, and she shared her life story including her journey to the Queensland Quaker Meeting.
Pam was the second eldest of four girls who lived initially at a property near Biloela. When it was time for schooling the family moved to Brisbane. Towards last years of Pam’s youngest sister’s schooling, her parents moved permanently to a family property “Curragilla”, on the Prairie Muttaburra road near the geographic centre of Queensland. School and university holidays were spent on the property doing sheep and then cattle work. Her parents welcomed their daughters’ friends for holidays as extra farm hands!
Pam loved their country lifestyle, and in her married life moved to a property outside of Toowoomba where they had the land and the space of that country childhood.
Pam’s dad shared many of his own values with his family. Though he was someone who attended church only for weddings and funerals, Pam describes him as having a strong sense of fairness. This sense of fairness, inherited from her father, challenged Pam in her later work as a social worker and sometimes led to her breaking rules that did not seem humane or kindly.
He encouraged the family to rise at sunrise to make the most of what he considered ‘the best part of the day’. Her dad came from a large family without much money and he saw his four sisters struggle financially, so he encouraged his daughters to study so that they would never be financially dependent on anyone but themselves. His four daughters could not drive a car until they could replace a tyre — a wise move for those driving on the rough and often isolated country roads.
Pam also imbibed his strong work ethic and though Pam describes herself as having been fortunate in the people she worked with in her working life, there is a sense that her approach to work and her inner sense of what was fair would have ensured a positive response from her colleagues.
Pam’s faith journey began in the Anglican church which her mother attended. Pam taught Sunday school but struggled to see Christianity in action. When there was discussion about replacing the existing altar with a marble one, in her local wealthy Anglican church, Pam thought surely there was a better way to spend that money. At that time, what kept Pam in the church was the choir as she loved to sing.
One strand of Pam’s faith journey was her own poor health during her childhood. She had some heart irregularities and was in and out of hospital. Though she sensed her mother’s anxiety, Pam felt safe – she felt she was being looked after by her parents, the medics and God. She describes this as “the simple faith of a 12-year-old”. In the past few years, Pam has had quite a few medical challenges, but throughout she maintained her sense of gratitude for having had a very good life and has had no fear of dying.
While studying social work at the University of Queensland, Pam’s faith was nurtured by the warden of St John’s College, James Warner, who demonstrated a living faith that was open to adolescent queries.
Once graduated, Pam began work as the first social worker at the then Southport Coast Hospital – a small 4-ward hospital, servicing the Gold Coast. Pam had not studied hospital social work and found many elements of medical practice in the 1970s to be testing.
She was distressed working with young women who were pregnant but could not see how they could keep their babies because they were “unmarried mothers”. Some came from interstate so that their families were unaware that their “holiday” covered up having a baby and giving that baby up for adoption. The prevailing rule was that these women could not see their babies, but Pam could see no reason for them not to see them and let them into the nursery.
Pam worked with a couple of surgeons who would refer patients to Brisbane for serious surgical treatment and she would suggest that these patients needed to talk with and to question their doctors about their diagnosis and prognosis, but either from fear, lack of compassion and/or the communication skills, the couple of hospital surgeons were often reluctant or indeed did not see this need.
She also remembers that patients were not informed that they were terminally ill. That was up to the doctors and the many of the doctors – surgeons in particular – seemed to lack the ability to talk with patients about terminal illness. As a social worker, she was not allowed to tell the patients the truth in relation to the patient’s diagnosis and prognosis. Pam believed most people would prefer to know the reality.
In the early 1970’s there were no public beds available for psychiatric inpatients at the Gold Coast. If patients had a psychotic episode or a serious mental illness requiring hospitalisation, they had to be taken to a Brisbane hospital by ambulance and the ambulance drivers refused to take patients on Fridays because of the fear of accidents on the Gold Coast-Brisbane highway. People who might be injured in a motor vehicle accident were prioritised over patients with a psychiatric illness requiring hospitalisation for their safety and treatment. It was a challenging situation for patients and their families.
Pam remembers having a visit from a senior social worker which had her terrified, as she did not wear uniforms and most people in the hospital called her “Pam” not “Miss Tooth”, neither of which were “done” in medical social work at that time. Despite her unconventional approach, Pam was commended for the work she was doing.
Later, Pam worked in Cairns with Child Protection and in the Yarrabah Aboriginal Settlement where she observed that they had their own ways of dealing with difficulties. She drove down a steep hill to reach the community in a four-wheel drive that had a bright yellow roof and could be seen from some distance away. When she arrived to speak to the welfare officer, all the kids had gone bush so she rarely saw a child, but she knew the children had plenty of family to look after them.
Pam was asked to formalise adoptions within the Yarrabah. The paperwork for the adoption of Aboriginal children was structured to white families and did not “fit” with Aboriginal family relationships.
Whilst working In April 1975, in the closing days of the Vietnam War, more than 3000 babies were airlifted from Saigon orphanages and delivered into the arms of waiting couples in the US, Canada, Britain, Europe and Australia.. One request that still leaves her flabbergasted was in 1975 at the end of the Vietnam War, when babies were airlifted from orphanages to Australia, there was a woman who came to the Dept of Children’s Services to request adoption and said she would like to adopt a Vietnamese child, but “not a black one”.
When Pam returned to the Gold Coast, she worked in Lifeline and trained telephone counsellors and also did disaster recovery work in floods. She later worked in Lifeline in Toowoomba and in both places gained great respect for those she trained who offered phone counselling as volunteers.
After university, Pam drifted away from the traditional church. She moved to London to work as a social worker in a hospital there and found herself observing three people whose way of relating to people attracted her admiration. She asked about them and found they were all Quakers.
When she returned to Australia, she was at the Gold Coast where there was no Meeting for Worship. She travelled to Kelvin Grove Meeting occasionally. Pam then moved to a small sheep farm in Kinglake to join her now husband, Peter Brennan. Then, when she and her husband moved to their property near Clifton, south of Toowoomba she met Taisoo Kim Watson and began to meet regularly with Quakers in Taisoo’s home.
Since Peter and Pam sold their property and have moved into Toowoomba, Pam’s alternates fortnightly with Taisoo to offer hospitality for the local Quaker Meetings and her husband, Peter, who is not a Quaker nonetheless welcomes 12 Quakers into the home and cooks for them.