Jean Lawry (nee Ford) was born in Rotorua in 1934, and moved to the Cook Islands when she was four years old, during the Second World War. In hindsight, she considers her short time there as having influenced her decision to go nursing: there was only one trained health worker, and she grew to understand that a service occupation such as nursing ‘might be a good thing’. Back in New Zealand, Jean left school at age sixteen, and trained as an accountant. She didn’t think about nursing until after she had qualified as an accountant. While her mother accepted her decision to change occupations, her father was not happy – ‘he thought I was crazy’.
Jean applied to the Auckland Hospital Board, as she wished to remain in Auckland. Unlike many of the younger girls, her mother did not accompany her to the interview – she was ‘almost twenty-one and very independent’. Her training began in January 1955. Jean remembers that very few other entrants already had a qualification, and that she was a bit older than the others. There were about forty-seven girls in total, mostly Aucklanders.
Jean describes the Nurses’ Home as a ‘cross between a chicken coop and a nunnery’. The first-year rooms were located at the bottom of the building, in the ‘dungeon’, with the top rooms for the senior sisters. Entertaining visitors was rare: female visitors were allowed but ‘you had to tell sister who she was’. The Nurses’ Home also had laundry facilities in every bathroom for hand-washing. Meals were provided in the dining room in the main Nurses’ Home which was separate from the hospital – ‘rain or shine, you had to trek there’, and on night shift walking around the hospital was ‘spooky’.
The teaching Jean received was on ‘everything from patients to the bedstead’. Cleaning was a main task for student nurses, ‘everything had to be clean’. In addition, making patients comfortable was a ‘huge part of patient care’. Junior nurses also had to tidy the patients’ bedside tables, and Jean remembers that ‘you could tell a lot by looking at their bedside locker: if they had drunk their fluids, if their false teeth were bothering them, all the little things that made up the whole’. She believes that this is what many nurses nowadays are missing because hospitals now have cleaners to do this job. With experience, her responsibilities increased, and from her second year she was responsible for more junior students. The students also had to have chest X-rays during their training every three months ‘because of the prevalence of tuberculosis’. At the Preliminary Nurses’ School, the nurses learnt among other things how to acknowledge their seniors.
Jean’s relationships with her colleagues varied according to their role. The junior nurses looked up to the senior nurses. They had little to do with doctors – they were ‘not encouraged to ask a lot of questions’ – but they could sometimes build up a good working relationship with the house surgeons. They also did not participate in doctors’ rounds, but Jean recalls that sometimes they could be invited to come on rounds by a sister. She remembers ward sisters as ‘amazing women’, for whom she had enormous respect.
Jean recalls that ‘debriefing’ with fellow students after a duty was important as it provided support for the emotional aspects of nursing. The girls requested to have rooms near their friends at the Nurses’ Home, because there were always three or four who wanted to wind down at the same time after their shifts – ‘you’d sit on someone's bed, have a cup of tea, smoke a cigarette, and get it out of your system’. While smoking was prevalent, she says that alcohol was not part of her student nurse experience. Music and dancing were very popular ways to spend one’s time off. Jean didn’t have a serious relationship while a student, but she says some girls became engaged during their training. However, shift work made it ‘difficult to sustain a one-on-one relationship’.
Jean noticed a big difference in her pay as a nurse compared to when she was working as an accountant: her first nursing salary was £2-4s-5d, ‘much less than ten or twelve pounds a week’. She says they learned how to save, and she did a lot of her own sewing including her dress for her graduation. They were all working six days a week, with shifts from 7am to 3pm, 3pm -11pm and 11pm to 7am. Jean recalls some grumbles about conditions: nurses ‘didn’t always like the rosters’, and it was ‘considered mean’ to have shifts close together allowing for only short sleeps in between. Of 48 trainees in her year, only about 28 graduated.
After remaining at Auckland Hospital for a fourth year after her training, Jean went to England to do her midwifery training. She did six months training at two different hospitals in London, and was tempted to train to be a tutor, but decided that she preferred intensive care nursing. On her eventual return to New Zealand Jean became involved in helping establish the first respiratory or intensive care unit at Auckland Hospital. This included a funded study trip around the world to observe intensive care units. On her retirement from Auckland Hospital she held the position of Supervising Sister for the first Auckland intensive care unit.
Following marriage and when her youngest child started school she returned to accountancy practice. Despite seeing some merits of current nurse training programmes, Jean considers the training nurses receive nowadays as being less comprehensive than back when she did her training.
This link will take you to the abstract summarising the full interview with Jean Lawry: