Margaret Dietrich (nee Rickard), a twin, was born in Wellington in 1945. She decided to become a nurse after her brother had a serious accident and she was impressed by the importance of the nurses' work when she visited him in hospital. She remembers that her father ‘did not like the thought of me looking after men’ and thought nursing would be quite demanding, but that her mother was happy for her to do what she wanted.
Margaret began her training at Wellington Hospital in 1963 in a class of about sixty students. She recalls that Wellington School of Nursing had a reputation for excellence. There were three tutor sisters who taught in Preliminary School, and the students also used a mock ward to assist in their learning. The students also had ongoing medical checks. Margaret explains the nature of the exam at the end of the three-month Preliminary School and the high drop-out rate.
After Prelim, the students were assigned to a ward, and Margaret was placed in a surgical ward. The junior nurse took care of cleaning, sterilising and the sluice room duties, while the senior nurse looked after wounds. By the end of her first year, Margaret was doing some dressings and giving out medications. They also cooked for patients after lectures from a dietician: these included scrambling or poaching eggs, and making egg nog or ‘complan’ drinks. The nurses always arrived to work early and left late – Margaret recalls that they were ‘lucky to get off when we were due to get off’. The students were put on night shift in their second year, and Margaret remembers feeling anxious about this as the responsibilities in night shift were greater than those during the day. She also remembers that the matron ‘could appear at any time’, and seemed to know who everyone was. She describes the role of the respective nurses.
Margaret remembers that the classroom education consisted mainly of rote learning. She says that the quality of teaching varied. It was hard to fit study in with their duties, and the students formed study groups to help each other. They were not allowed to be married as a student nurse: if they were, they were asked to leave. Patients stayed in hospital for long periods, and much nurse learning was skill-based.
Margaret says the Nurses’ Home was a ‘great place, a lot of fun’, and that it allowed her to make lasting friendships. The students had to be in by 9pm every night when the doors were locked. It was difficult to sneak in late through a window as most of the first floor bedrooms were assigned to registered nurses – Margaret remembers that they spent ‘more than one night in the public toilets in Rintoul Street’. She found the home sisters ‘horrible’. Margaret and a group of friends were allowed to stay at the Nurses’ Home at the nearby Ewart Hospital, which they preferred as it was 'more homely'.
Margaret and her friends were then allowed to go flatting rather than return to the regular Nurses’ Home in the final six months of training. She recalls that there were some rules over flatting and that, as their pay was so low, it was an expensive exercise.
The students went to a lot of parties, either in town or at the doctors’ residence. Many had boyfriends, and Margaret says it was not difficult to maintain those relationships. Other social activities included shopping, although most of the girls sewed their own clothes and shared them. Margaret says that everyone smoked except the cardio-thoracic specialist who was fiercely against smoking and would lecture them on the health risks. She reflects on a Royal Visit to the hospital.
Once Margaret graduated in 1966, she became a staff nurse, working in the Intensive Care Unit, and recalls that as a registered nurse she was treated with respect by other staff. After six months she went overseas. Although initially wanting to work in London, she changed her mind soon after she arrived and returned home. On the ship home, she met her future husband, Jim. He was heading to Australia, and she decided to go and live with him once he had settled in. While in New Zealand waiting to leave for Australia, Margaret worked at the Porirua Psychiatric Hospital, which she says she didn’t like but the money was good which she thought was because the nursing was ‘dominated by men’. She describes the conditions in the hospital.
Margaret got married in 1967, and while pregnant with her first child worked in haematology in Sydney. After returning to New Zealand in 1971, she worked for another year at Porirua Hospital. She was then appointed sister at Russel Kemp Hospice which was a geriatric hospital and had a ‘great team’. She reflects on changes within geriatric nursing, having seen modern-day nursing with respect to her own mother.
In 1981 she began working at newly-opened Kenepuru Hospital, and in 1986 she trained as a Plunket nurse, working in Waitangirua which was a low-income area. Margaret says she loved the job and that ‘it was a good experience for me’. More recently, she worked for Plunketline – an anonymous advice phone line – which was also a learning experience. Margaret has seen many changes in nursing over the years, and thinks that there is greater knowledge now but also greater expectations. She is proud to be a nurse (there ‘is nothing else I wanted to be’) and she would do it again. She reflects on changes over her career.
This link will take you to the abstract summarising the full interview with Margaret Dietrich: