Born in 1935, Elizabeth Mitchelson (nee Nathan) grew up in the Kaipara area, where her family lived on a farm. As she got older, Elizabeth was determined to train as a nurse. Her father could not understand this – ‘he thought I was crazy’. She was inspired by her aunt who, although not a trained nurse or midwife, delivered the babies in the area.
Elizabeth started nurse training at Auckland Hospital in May 1954, at the Preliminary School on Market Road. There were thirty others in her class, all girls, with one other Māori student apart from her. There were several other Māori nurses at Auckland Hospital in the years above Elizabeth, and they would get together if they were all off duty at the same time. Elizabeth recalls that settling into the Nurses' Home was difficult – ‘the whole environment was very foreign’. She had three cousins also training at Auckland Hospital, which helped, but she was still quite nervous.
Part of Elizabeth’s training was on the wards. She remembers that one ward sister acted ‘like a sergeant major – she used to stand at the main door and bellow’ and she ‘ran the ward like clockwork’. She also recalls that the doctors ‘used to put the fear of God into me’: there was one neurosurgeon in particular whom Elizabeth says everyone was scared of. Elizabeth’s tasks as junior nurse were limited to cleaning and tidying, as well as bed making and occasionally helping with dressings. In her second year, she went on placement to Middlemore Hospital to study orthopaedics. She describes this as being very different from being at the main hospital as ‘the patients were well except for their fractures – it was much easier to engage with them’. Being one of the few Māori student nurses at the hospitals, Elizabeth was occasionally approached by her superiors to help communicate with Māori patients – while she could speak a lot of Māori, she says that they ‘just assumed because you were Māori that you were fluent’. She found the regimentation quite strange.
Elizabeth lived in the Nurses’ Home at Auckland Hospital. The nurses had their own rooms, with shared bathrooms and a lounge for visitors. Elizabeth made very good friends, and she says they supported each other – ‘it was easy to develop a whanau concept in the Nurses’ Home’, and she made life-long friends.
In terms of her social life as a nurse trainee, Elizabeth was quite busy. The hospital held dances in the dining room, and the nurses went on outings on their days off. With only one day off a week, there was not enough time to bus home and back again, and it was too expensive to have a car, so Elizabeth went home for the holidays and otherwise kept in touch by telephone and letters. She recalls dancers at the Maori Community Centre.
While Elizabeth was ‘very nervous’, she passed all her exams. Some of her class had dropped out, including the other Māori student – Elizabeth remembers feeling ‘quite disappointed’. In addition, one girl was required to leave because she became pregnant – ‘it was quite sad in those days’. After her graduation in 1957, Elizabeth went to Pukekohe Hospital to do her maternity training, and registered as a maternity nurse.
A group from Elizabeth’s class travelled together to Australia in 1958, where Elizabeth worked in several hospitals. She remembers nursing there being different from that in New Zealand in terms of the ‘interrelationship between the client and yourself’ – the ‘manner in which people communicated’ had been quite a big part of her training. She had planned to travel further afield, but the girls she was travelling with ‘all went off and got married’, and her closest friend had come back to New Zealand. When her mother became very ill, Elizabeth also came home to look after her.
Elizabeth met her husband, who was a friend of her cousins, and got married in 1964. They had their first child in 1965. She says that nursing has fitted in well around her whanau.
She took a full-time job at UNITEC in 1985, teaching practical nursing and tangata whenua health issues. Elizabeth had maintained strong links with her Māori heritage, and tried to promote Māori into nursing. She was a founding member of the National Council of Māori Nurses, which started because of lack of Māori in nursing and lack of understanding of cultural issues. Elizabeth also began teaching cultural safety in nursing at UNITEC. This mainly consisted of how you would approach and care for a Māori patient, and trying to explain the importance of concepts such as tapu. Elizabeth recalls that it was ‘a lot of hurt, but we struggled through’ – some students considered it a ‘load of rubbish’. She believes her teaching became easier over time, as New Zealanders grew more aware and gained a greater understanding of the Treaty of Waitangi. Elizabeth also got her Bachelor’s degree in Nursing in 1995.
While she feels she has had a fulfilling career, Elizabeth considers today’s method of nursing training to be stronger.
This link will take you to the abstract summarising the full interview with Elizabeth Mitchelson: