Denise Harger (nee Forde) was born in 1946 in Southland. Denise worked in a dairy part time from age fifteen, and says that ‘work was very important’ in her family. She wanted to be a nurse when she left school, but was unsure if she would be accepted. She recalls that both nursing and teaching were seen as good careers and you were lucky if you got in; her parents were ‘very proud’ when she was accepted.
Denise remembers being interviewed by Miss Lucas at Southland Hospital who informed her that she didn't really like girls from St Catherine’s, the Catholic school Denise had attended. However, Denise was accepted. She began in 1964, but contracted rheumatic fever and was hospitalised for three months and so started her training again the following year.
Training included ward work from the beginning, and Denise explains that she learned tasks like making beds until they were ‘perfect, absolutely perfect’. They had a dummy called Mrs Chase which they practised on. Denise remembers Sister Gerritsen who was ‘a wonderful, wonderful woman. But very tough, very, very hard. She expected everything to be perfection’. The students had to be at work early to get everything done in time, and Miss Gerritsen ‘would just stand there’ to order them around. ‘She wouldn't say anything, she'd just point’. Denise describes the junior nurses’ chores.
Denise recalls some outstanding charge nurses whom she still admires today, but she did not look up to some sisters who were ‘lazy and spoke scathingly to the junior nurses’. The students had practical as well as written exams, and Denise recalls having to make patients an orange drink and prepare them food for one exam. She believes that current students could have more practical work within their qualification. Their first professional exam was held at the end of their first year, and the results posted on the noticeboard. As Southland Hospital was a small hospital, there was no separate hospital for psychiatric patients. Instead, there were two padded cells and ‘the birdcage’, which the students occasionally worked in and which Denise describes.
As a junior nurse, Denise did only morning or afternoon shifts for the first six months. ‘Once you passed that first exam, you were then alone on a ward at night and that was terribly stressful.’ When they were rostered for a block of night shift duties, the nurses shifted room to the night-shift floor for quietness. They worked in pairs and everyone was responsible for a specific few patients. If the nurses did have quiet times, they’d ‘meet on the stairs where they could hear their patients’ bells, but they could have a natter or a fag’. Denise recalls that there was no counselling or debriefing for the nurses dealing with patients’ deaths, but that the debriefing occurred informally in the Nurses’ Home.
Denise lived in the Nurses’ Home and recalls that there were queues for the baths every night but there was plenty of hot water: ‘you could fill it up to the brim which you couldn't do at home’. She says that at meals ‘everyone moaned about the food, always’. Some nurses got homesick but ‘received no sympathy’. There were strict rules. They had to sign in and out, when they went out to movies, shopping or to dances. As they worked shifts, the nurses could go to dances during the week days as well as the weekend, so she often didn’t see her friends. Denise remembers Ivy whose role as ‘night snoop’ was to keep the nurses in line.
Denise did her maternity training at Dee Street Maternity Hospital which she remembers as not being totally salubrious.
After she qualified in 1967, Denise applied to be staff nurse on night duty as others had recommended it over a job in one ward. Denise recalls that if you wanted a job, you got it because there was a shortage of nurses in those days. She worked as a staff nurse for a year, and had a broad experience especially in casualty. She recalls that she tried to support the trainee nurses on night shift based on her own experience, and says that the trained staff treated her with more respect once she was a qualified nurse.
In 1969, Denise travelled to Australia with a non-nursing friend, and they worked selling magazine subscriptions and then as nannies. Later, Denise worked at St John of God Brothers’ Hospital, Sydney, which was her only experience with psychiatric nursing. She returned home after nine months and began working as a charge nurse in the Accident and Emergency Department at Southland Hospital. In 1972 she travelled to England with some friends and worked at a clinic in Harley Street, London. She describes the popularity of New Zealand trained nurses in London.
Denise met her future husband Matt and they became engaged before returning to New Zealand to marry in 1973. She worked briefly at Bidwell Private Hospital in Timaru until the birth of the first of her three children that same year, and returned to work at the Cancer Society at Dunedin Hospital in 1980 when her youngest child was three. In 1985 she began work full time in the Emergency Department at Dunedin Hospital, where she remained until 2011.
Denise has always been a member of the New Zealand Nurses’ Organisation, and has used it for employment matters several times during her career. She envies the knowledge of the modern nurses but wonders about their practical nursing and nursing care. Denise feels proud of her work and her career and reflects on the collegiality of her generation of nurses who lived in the Nurses’ Home.
This link will take you to the abstract summarising the full interview with Denise Harger: