Claire Birss was born in the King Country in 1939, and later moved to Waiuku where she spent most of her childhood. She decided to be a nurse during a two-month stay at Queen Mary Hospital with nephritis as a young girl. She says her parents were initially against her becoming a nurse, but ‘what they didn't know was, if I made up my mind to do something, look out.’ Once she had been accepted for training, her parents reconciled themselves with her decision.
Claire began at Auckland School of Nursing in 1958, and was placed at Green Lane Hospital. She recalls that ‘you knew nobody. But that didn’t seem to worry me, I was going to do my training.’ She quickly became good friends with another ‘country girl’ and has had a lifelong friendship with her. About thirty nurses out of the initial intake of fifty completed their training. Quite a few left as soon as they completed training, either to give up nursing entirely, to get married or to go overseas.
There was a hierarchy in both the Nurses’ Home and in the wards, but Claire did not find this to be a problem: ‘it’s like being at school, you just accepted that other people knew things that you didn't know.’ The Nurses’ Home was the first time Claire had had her own bedroom – ‘I thought I was made.’ A lot of other girls came from private school backgrounds and ‘very quickly, I found my niche wasn’t quite with that range. I was more with the country girls.’ The nurses in Claire’s class came from a wide range of social backgrounds, including a few Maori girls who ‘sort of blended in with everybody’. While Claire was very aware of the social differences, it was not of concern to her as she was ‘there for a purpose’. She explains the strict disciplines in the Nurses’ Home.
In her first year, along with classroom education the nurses did a lot of cleaning jobs – ‘you learned very quickly to be very thorough about everything’. Her second year was more specialised: they went ‘touring’ to other hospitals to focus on different areas of training, including orthopaedics, paediatrics and obstetrics. Claire’s class was the first to include obstetrics in their training, and she recalls that some nurses from previous years looked down on her class because they did not have to do separate maternity training. This influenced the way Claire later treated the nurses in the years below her: she believed you had enough to do without adding superiority into the mix.
The nurses were taught to consider a patient’s entire health when treating them, and they built relationships with long-term patients such as those with tuberculosis. As a result of her own experience in hospital as a child, Claire feels she had a particular empathy and some patients actually waited specifically for Claire to give them their injections or medication.
While the nurses earned less than girls in other jobs, Claire says ‘that didn’t worry me’. They had one day off a week from the hospital. Some of the more privileged nurses had a car or a scooter to go off on that day, or their family came and picked them up, so Claire considers her experience was probably different from theirs. Claire says that she did not smoke but a lot of others did. She also recalls taking a drunken nurse home one night, and says that some nurses indulged in such ‘risky behaviour’, but she did not. Her excursions were, however, constrained by a tight budget.
Claire graduated in 1961 at the Auckland Town Hall, which she describes as being ‘a big event’. She stayed on at Green Lane Hospital after her graduation, which gave her a ‘very valuable’ opportunity to consolidate her training. She was a Preliminary School tutor for a while as a staff nurse there.
After a while, Claire looked at going ‘out in the field’. She wanted to work in the community, because ‘you were out there with real people’. She accepted a position as a public health nurse in Kawakawa in Northland in 1964. The district health nurses worked closely with doctors and the hospital, teaching Claire that in a small area everyone must work together. She brought knowledge from her training about many things including dressings, infections, tuberculosis, and paediatrics, and she said it was easy to recall her practical training. She had a lot of Maori patients there, and they taught her much about ‘Maori ways of doing things’. She felt very much part of the community.
Claire met her husband, while he was a police officer in Kawakawa. She moved with him to Te Aroha, a small rural town in the Waikato where she stopped work to have her two children. When Claire was ready to resume full time work, she trained as a Plunket Nurse then returned to public health nursing, first in Te Aroha, then in Tokoroa. Later, she worked at Rangipo Prison in Turangi. There, she was the sole nurse for 120 prisoners, which she contrasts with the teams of nurses working shifts in prisons today. Because she was in a male prison, she says the officers were concerned with her safety and ‘watched me like a hawk’ – ‘by the time I left… I wondered who was locked up’. She regarded the inmates as patients and not criminals.
After six years, Claire returned to community nursing spending the last 20 years of her career as a public health nurse in Turangi, ‘I loved coming back to public health’. She recalled highlights of this time: organising an ear programme for pre-schoolers, working with mothers and babies, and developing networks with other health providers. Claire loved her nursing career and ‘would do it again’. She believes that her choice of public health matched her philosophy of life and nursing.
This link will take you to the abstract summarising the full interview with Claire Birss: