Born in New Plymouth 1937, Helen Donovan (nee Dykes) moved to Kaitaia with her family in the early 1940s. Her interest in nursing began when she spent a week in hospital after an appendectomy aged thirteen. At fifteen, whilst still attending secondary school, Helen worked at Kaitaia Hospital as a nursing aide. She was responsible for providing patients with drinks, bedpans, and basins for washing. She was even left on her own during night shifts in the children’s and babies’ ward.
Upon leaving school at age sixteen Helen felt that the only real career paths available for women were in teaching, working as a shop assistant, banking and nursing. She worked as a doctor’s receptionist for a year before deciding to apply for nurse training in Napier. Starting training in 1955, Helen was the youngest of the 25 girls in her class. She recalls that she was told at the beginning of her training that she would not be able to sit the final state exam with her cohort because she would not yet be 21.
On the wards the student nurses’ duties included getting the wards ready for rounds. ‘You had to have everyone spick and span and tidily in their beds’. Nurses were expected to clean the beds and lockers immaculately every day, a task that was strictly monitored by the matron.
There was a strict hierarchy on the wards. ‘You kept your position as a junior nurse…you never approach doctors’. The matron was treated with reverence and respect. Helen describes all the junior staff waiting at lunch, standing behind their chairs until the matron arrived and gave them the nod to sit down.
After registering Helen went to work at Porirua Mental Hospital, initially intending to train as a psychiatric nurse. As a general nurse she was responsible for the ‘basic care’ of the patients, such as preventing bedsores and administering some drugs. Porirua Hospital paid relatively substantial wages so by the time she left after 6 months, she had saved a significant sum of money. She ended up using the savings to support her studies at university.
Helen took a break from nursing in 1959 when she undertook a law degree at Victoria University of Wellington. She was one of nine women in her class of 100 students but by the end of her second year she was the last woman left. Helen would return to nursing over the summer in the university break, something that she describes as an advantage over other female law students looking for holiday work. During her training she met and married James, who had also trained in law. Persisting with her degree, despite moving city (back to Napier) and having four children, Helen completed her LLB in 1968.
When her youngest child was three years old, Helen returned to work part-time as a nurse to earn a bit of extra money for the family. Helen describes finding some significant changes compared to when she last worked in the hospital. The sister’s’ veils had gone, intravenous drugs were delivered in bags rather than bottles and the terminologies had changes. She worked part-time on night shifts for nine years so that she could balance work and childcare.
Upon moving to Auckland in 1984, Helen decided to pursue legal work. She began by volunteering in the Neighbourhood Law Office, but eventually ended up working in mental health law. She drew upon her experiences in nursing throughout her career in law, especially when she was working on legal aid for people under the Mental Health Act: ‘Advocacy was not really part of the role as legal counsel but my nursing background enabled me to help some people in a particular way’.
Helen Donovan circa 1960
21 MAY 2013
Fostex FR-2LE Digital Recorder
This link will take you to the abstract summarising the full interview with Helen Donovan: