Doreen Minnie Arapai (nee Head) was born in Auckland in 1945 to parents of Niuean and English descent. Doreen’s mother had trained as a nurse in Samoa in the 1930s and that inspired Doreen to go nursing.
Doreen was accepted to the Auckland School of Nursing in 1963, and her family and friends accompanied her to Middlemore Hospital on her first day of Preliminary School; Doreen recalls crying: ‘I was just overwhelmed, all these young palagi women. I was the only Islander, no Maori’. She felt unsure but settled in quickly, and remembers feeling proud in her uniform and thinking, ‘I’ve made it, I'm a nurse’. There were three tutor sisters in Preliminary School. Doreen remembers working hard to keep up to the standard she wanted. Several of her classmates left at the end of Prelim School. She describes the Head Tutor.
After Prelim, the nurses were assigned to wards. Doreen remembers ‘running the whole time…no time to think, just get on with it’. They learned from the second and third year students above them – ‘you looked up to them and thought “wow!”’. If they didn’t work fast enough they got told off, ‘and it wasn’t nice being told off’: ‘you only had to be told off once, you never forgot it’. The junior nurses’ tasks included the jobs of the ward cleaners and ward assistants when they weren’t there on weekends. They also did basic patient care so the senior nurses could do the things they needed to, ‘it was very much a team effort’. Tasks such as bed-bathing and mouth care were known as ‘nursing arts’. The Home Sister knocked on every morning shift nurse's door to ensure they were up and on their ward on time. It was very important to be on time and to do things quickly.
After Doreen completed her first professional exam, she left some of the more basic duties behind and gained more responsibility, which meant work ‘became a lot more interesting’. The staff nurse kept an eye on the junior nurses: ‘she was like a fly, you know, eyes everywhere. She knew exactly who was doing what.’ Doreen remembers Miss Crabbe, Matron of the Middlemore Maternity Unit, who was very particular about mitred bed corners. She also remembers an element of competition between the nurses: there was a Rosebowl Competition between Auckland, Green Lane and Middlemore Hospitals where teams were given a scenario to demonstrate their nursing skills, and in Doreen’s first year Middlemore Hospital won because of the quality of the senior nurses. She explains how important it was to trainee nurses to perform well.
The students had study blocks throughout their training, with lectures mostly by tutor sisters. Doreen considers the ward work and study blocks did not coincide very well, but explains how you taught yourself, so that it all came together in the end.
Doreen saw very few Maori and Pacific clients in hospital, and not until her third year. She recalls trying to interpret for a Niuean patient while on placement at Green Lane and at Auckland, but usually people would bring in someone who could speak English. There were some Pacific people who worked in the hospital kitchens, but none in positions of authority. She reflects on some patients’ attitudes to Pacific Island nurses.
Doreen lived in the Nurses’ Home. She says there was never a queue for the bathrooms despite the number of nurses, but remembers that everyone used talcum powder and that she hated going into the bathroom when someone had left powder all over the floor. The nurses were all friends and they would go shopping, to the movies or play tennis at the hospital courts. There were a lot of dances in the city, and Doreen was also chair of the Student Nurses’ Association which organised dances. Doreen was too focused on her training to have a boyfriend. She met her husband Rimatauenga between hospital and state finals in her third year: ‘He asked me out and I said “I have to check my roster”’, and she didn’t get back to him for five months! ‘He’s never let me forget that’. She explains the discipline in the Nurses’ Home and how to get in after the curfew.
After ‘a lot of study and hard work’, Doreen passed her state final exams and graduated in 1966 at a ceremony which her whole family attended. She was asked to work in the critical care ward and says it was a smooth transition to a staff nurse: ‘you just embraced the responsibilities as they came’.
Doreen left work after eighteen months to marry and, after working part time at rest homes she returned to work part time as a registered nurse at Auckland Hospital from 1975 until 1999. Part time work provided opportunities to enrol at the University of Auckland and complete a BA in Anthropology in 1985, and also to work as a Nursing Educator at Unitec in the Return to Nursing Programme for two terms. She says her husband supported her while she worked and studied: ‘I had everything, it was great’. She recalls an increase in Pacific patients in the 1980s. In the 1970s and 1980s the New Zealand Nurses’ Organisation was not meeting her needs, and so she joined the Niuean Nurses’ Association in 1987. She also joined the National Council of Maori Nurses. The Cartwright Inquiry in 1988 led to an interpreter service being set up, and Doreen was a member of the Interpreter Service Working Party. She moved from clinical practice into the community in a management role in Pasifika Healthcare for five years, and then to Pasifika Integrated Healthcare on the North Shore for another five years.
In 2002 Doreen completed her Masters in Nursing at Massey University. She says she decided to do her Master’s degree because she felt she needed to keep up with the polytechnic trained nurses. She remembers working with these nurses, and having to get them to reconcile their expectations of ward work: they often disliked doing menial tasks but ‘it’s all part of the job’. She considers that the art of caring might not be as strong in today’s nurses and their focus seemed to be on writing reports rather than people.
This link will take you to the abstract summarising the full interview with Doreen Arapai: