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Memory 1: Urgent air mail

One sunny Monday morning back in the 1970s, our General and Obstetrics class was due to sit State Finals in Greymouth, with the first paper being medical nursing.

Our matron at the time duly turned up in our classroom clasping a large brown envelope. We were all very nervous as she addressed us and wished us luck.

Upon opening the envelope, to everyone’s horror Matron found the paper to be for the obstetrics exam planned for the Wednesday. Matron apologised and dashed back to her office to retrieve the remaining papers.

On returning to our classroom she opened the second one to discover that too was the obstetrics paper. She opened the third envelope to find this to be a third set of obstetrics nursing papers.

No sign of a medical paper anywhere. Matron was visibly upset, and asked us to go back to the Nurses’ Home while she rang the Nursing Council. We were told we would have to take a day’s annual leave if the papers could not be sorted.

Our class went back to the home with all sorts of emotions running through us, as this was a key part of why we had spent three and a bit years training. A couple of hours later our principal tutor contacted us to say that the council was sending the missing papers by plane. We were not to talk to any other student nurses we knew around the country and would be sitting the exam at 2pm.

Sure enough a small Cessna arrived on the Greymouth airfield (which runs alongside Grey Base Hospital) and pulled up just by where the rescue helicopter base now stands. Matron ran out and retrieved the papers from the pilot, he took off again and she came across the road to deliver us our medical papers.

Memory 2: I remember when…

  • Nurses had to wear pantyhose every day, and heaven help you if you got a hole or a run in them – so unprofessional!
  • All corners on the beds were mitred and the pillows had to have the opening facing away from the door, bed wheels turned in.
  • We wore capes to go for our meal breaks – blue for Registered Nurses and red for Enrolled Nurses.
  • The senior nurses on afternoon shifts had their meal together at 8pm, it was called ‘high tea’.
  • Nurses, both RNs and ENs, were trained in the hospital, and the change to polytech-trained nurses caused great angst.
  • One nurse took all the elderly patients’ dentures out and put them into pottles and cleaned them. She then had no idea which teeth belonged to which patient!
  • It was perfectly acceptable to smoke cigarettes in the nursing station office. There was a low-lying haze throughout the room.
  • Doctors were God-like and expected to be treated as such. A nurse would never voice her opinion to a doctor – how times have changed!
  • The second tier of nursing (enrolled nurses) was removed from acute care areas and a cohort of girls went off and retrained as RNs with UCOL. Some of them still work here in senior management positions.
  • There were long-stay patients in the medical ward. On any given day it was hard looking after those who were acutely unwell, plus caring for those patients who were, for all intents and purposes, in their own home.
  • We lost special nurses to various illnesses.
  • The medical ward was full of asthmatics for most of the winter.
  • There was a hospital superintendent and a matron who ran the place.

Memory 3: Trouble with the pipes

I remember the days of my training, living in the good old nurses’ home in the town where I was born. We had to sign out when we went out for the evening, and take the book to the night supervisor on return to be signed in.

Following an outing with my local friends, I returned with my boyfriend at the time. I needed to do some study to be prepared for a study day later in the week. He wanted me to go to the local main street and sit in the car in the centre park where all the local young ones hung out.

I told him, “No, go and play your bagpipes” (he was a member of the local highland pipe band). Approximately three-quarters of an hour later, the pipes started up outside my room and nearly every window had a nurse yelling out of it.

Next morning, at 8.50am, I was sitting outside the matron’s office waiting to be dressed down. Next, in came my mother and I was addressed by both of them. Yet I was not the one who caused the problem!

Acknowledgement: These stories were gathered by the nursing team at the West Coast District Health Board for their recent International Nurses Day celebrations. They were first published in the DHB’s monthly CE Update and are republished with the DHB’s permission.

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