Margaret Crookbain (nee Cox) was born in Auckland in 1940, the middle of three daughters. When she left school at seventeen, she was not old enough to apply for nursing, where the age limit was eighteen; it was dropped to seventeen the following year. While Margaret waited to turn eighteen, she completed a cadet course at Auckland Hospital which she compares to nurse aiding: it consisted of both classroom tutoring and ward experience, which gave her ‘a taste of it all’. She was originally inspired to go nursing because her sister had graduated as a nurse.
In 1958, six months before she turned 18, Margaret applied to train at Auckland Hospital. As part of her application she underwent a medical examination in which the doctor told her that she ‘won't last through the years of nursing because you have really bad hammer toes’. Nevertheless she was allowed into the course even though she hadn’t yet turned 18. Her class in 1958 began with about ninety girls of varying ages ranging from 17 to their early 20s.
The three-month Preliminary Nursing School consisted of classes Monday to Friday, with Saturdays spent in the wards. Everyone had a Student Practical Experience Record Book, which detailed all the procedures they had undertaken with supervision through their three years of training. Margaret considers they had excellent tutorials, superb lecturers, quality nursing experience in the wards as well as plenty of sound health advice.
Margaret says that work started immediately – ‘you were right into it’. She remembers it as being quite hard emotionally sometimes, particularly with patient deaths: the nurses did not get any emotional support from the hospital, but ‘we cared for each other’. She recalls an experience of a patient dying which she would never forget.
There was a strict hierarchy at the hospital. Everyone had metal badges which showed their status: 'P' for Preliminary student nurse, then progressing through one, two and three stripes for each year, with a fourth stripe just before sitting their final state examinations. A senior nurse was anything between a second and third year student. Junior nurses had lots of non nursing duties, mostly to do with cleaning as, while the hospital had cleaners, they had nothing to do with the patient units. Junior nurses would also ensure that all equipment was clean at the end of shifts, and counted all the equipment and instruments needed for patient wound dressings. Margaret considers the excellent standard of equipment maintenance was why everything lasted so long. She explains the hierarchy.
Margaret remembers a number of other students dropping out, and that illness was a big factor. If the nurses missed too much work, they were required to stay back six months to catch up, therefore ensuring they graduated with a later class. Once, Margaret was hit in the face by an elderly patient who was having a wound dressed for a bad burn. An X-ray revealed that she had a broken jaw, and she was required to have her jaw wired and take four weeks off work. She says that she was ‘slowly losing my allowance to sit the exam’ – she knew that ‘if I didn't get back to work I was going to be put back six months’. She reminisces about a time when all the nurses were given the typhoid vaccine.
Margaret lived at the Auckland Hospital Nurses’ Home. She remembers the Home Sister, Sister Grace, as being lovely – ‘Grace by name and Grace by nature’ – while the one at her Green Lane Hospital placement was ‘very strict’. The Nurses’ Home allowed Margaret to make lifelong friends, and they all still meet for class reunions every five years. She recalls that ‘we organised things in the hospital ourselves’, including inter-hospital swimming and tennis tournaments. The nurses also went to local dance halls, travelling in taxis before Margaret bought a motor scooter in her third year: she recalls that she ‘always had a companion on the back’. Margaret was in her third year before alcohol was a factor in the parties they went to, but smoking was ‘the thing’ to do. She recalls that there was no time for serious boyfriends, although she dated a medical officer in her third year ‘which made it very easy as you knew what they were doing and they knew what you were doing and there would be no disturbance of your study’. Despite strict conditions in the Nurses’ Home they managed to have a very lively social life.
Margaret recalls that she enjoyed being a student nurse but that it was hard work. The nurses worked six days a week, with seven or eight-hour shifts. She remembers that there were ‘certain wards that you didn't want to go to’ based on what they’d heard from their classmates. The geriatric ward at Green Lane Hospital, for example, was very unpopular: it had very long-term patients and had very basic facilities. Margaret’s class was also the first class to include obstetrics – ‘we were the guinea pigs’. Margaret remembers that they were very busy – ‘we were very fit and very young and you needed to be’. She explains the work ethic of nursing.
After graduation in 1961, Margaret worked at Green Lane Hospital and became a junior ward sister, which she says was ‘a position of authority and responsibility’. In 1963, she travelled to Australia where she met her future husband Peter. They returned to New Zealand and were married in 1964. Margaret worked in a private practice in Auckland until her first child was born in 1965. When the youngest of her five children was aged six, she commenced a part-time, and later full-time, nursing role at the Adventist Hospital in St Heliers, where she remained for twenty years. In 2000, she moved to work at Mercy Ascot Hospital. Margaret considers nursing to have worked well with her family life, in both the public and private sector. As well as continuities, she also recognises many changes in nursing in New Zealand, one of which being that nurses are now paid appropriately for the positions that they hold. She regrets, however, the absence of the comradeship of the Nurses’ Home and the absence of practical skills in modern nurse training.
This link will take you to the abstract summarising the full interview with Margaret Crookbain: