Born in 1931, Joan Tait (nee Wellington) grew up as one of six children on her family farm in Wharehuia, Taranaki. Her father was a farmer and her mother had been a midwife before she married. Joan describes having always wanted to be a nurse, influenced in a large part by her mother’s career, as well as her aunt who was a registered general nurse. As a young girl she read all the nursing books she could get her hands on, even her mother’s nursing notes.
Joan began her nursing training at Hawera Hospital in 1951. On the wards a significant proportion of first-year students’ duties revolved around cleaning. This involved cleaning and sterilising equipment such as bedpans, bowls and tooth mugs, hand basins and toilets. Despite all the cleaning, there was some patient contact as well. There was always a list of patients to be sponged before preparing patients' breakfast and feeding those that needed to be fed. After morning tea the student assisted the middle duty nurse with patient pressure area care if the patient was bed ridden. In the afternoons those patients that weren't sponged in the morning had their turn. There were plenty of bedpans both morning and afternoon to be given out as no one was taken to the toilet. Responsibilities increased over time as nurses progressed through training. Second-year (middle) nurses, for example, would collect sputum and check for blood and would carry out diabetic urine tests.
There were clear rules that dictated many aspects of nurses’ lives, particularly as students. Joan recounts that Christian names were not used except amongst good friends, otherwise they went by the title ‘nurse’. At the nurses’ home students had to be in before the doors were locked at 11pm. The rules around nursing hierarchy also influenced nurses’ behaviour. Junior nurses were expected to open the door for anyone senior and were required to remain standing in the dining room until the matron and the senior sisters had taken their seats. Joan describes some of the senior staff as having a ‘military type approach’ in their interaction with the nurse trainees.
Joan recalls that the drugs available for treatment were very limited; penicillin was only just being introduced when she was completing her training. Blood transfusions were also quite new and blood reactions were common. She recounts that some of the common illnesses of the patients during her training included coronary diseases, whooping cough, poliomyelitis, typhoid, and tuberculosis. The nurses were at risk for contracting some of these diseases, in particular TB. Joan describes regular check-ups and x-rays that the nurses would have to monitor their condition.
With her training completed in 1954 Joan carried on at Hawera Hospital as a staff nurse. In 1955 she began a six-month maternity training programme at Stratford Avon Maternity Hospital. Poliomyelitis was a significant concern in the mid-1950s. At the end of her maternity nurse training Joan contracted the disease but could not be admitted to hospital because it was so full of polio cases. She had to take three months off work to recover. When she returned to work, Joan describes being unable to perform some basic activities because her leg and arm muscles had been damaged. She was working at Wanganui Hospital and the Matron suggested that she undertake a divided duty which involved working 6am to 10am and 6pm to 10pm. This gave Joan the opportunity to have physiotherapy during the day and regain more mobility in her limbs.
Joan worked as a staff nurse and sister until 1957 when she was given the role as tutor sister. She describes not being asked if she wanted the role but that there was a vacancy in the tutorial department and she was told to ‘report there on Monday morning’ by the Matron. Joan explains that she had ‘always liked teaching’ so was relatively pleased to be told of her change of position. She taught in the preliminary nurses’ school, teaching students skills such as ‘making beds ... getting them on to wards ... gradually allowed to teach how to take temperatures’. Joan worked as a tutor sister at both Hawera Hospital and Wanganui Hospital until 1960. Having married Jim that year, she took a break from nursing to have her children and move around the country for her husband’s work. In 1969, when her two children were in school, she returned to work as a community nurse tutor at Wanganui Hospital.
Joan went on to teach a return-to-nursing training programme. This involved teaching updated skills and techniques to nurses re-entering the workforce. She also recognised that some women wanted to be brought up to date with new methods and equipment so that they could be ‘out in the community’ helping rather than returning to work. Voluntarily, Joan initiated an evening course for retired nurses to learn new nursing practices so that they could assist in their communities.
In the 1980s Joan took on a role as practice nurse and receptionist at a doctors’ clinic. During this time she also cared for her parents and father-in-law who had failing health. Joan maintained her practising certificate until 1988.
This link will take you to the abstract summarising the full interview with Joan Tait: