The second of two daughters, Margaret Stevenson (nee Griffin) was born in Wellington in 1946 and grew up on Auckland’s North Shore, attending St Leo’s Convent and Carmel College. She describes the limited career options for Catholic girls, which included teaching, nursing, secretarial work, being a mother, or being ‘called to be a nun’. After the completing School Certificate Margaret left school in 1963 with the desire to be a shop window dresser. She worked in Smith and Caughey’s Department Store but was not allowed to be a window dresser because with the heavy lifting that was involved, it was considered to be men’s work. In 1964 Margaret decided to train as a psychiatric nurse after seeing jobs advertised for Oakley Mental Hospital. She recalls being interested in the work because it seemed vocational. Although Margaret had little knowledge of what psychiatric nursing entailed, she had had some exposure to mental illness in her family so ‘it wasn’t frightening … or unusual’ for her.
Starting at Oakley in 1965, Margaret initially worked as a nurse aide while she waited for the training programme to begin. She recounts that the experience of nurse aiding was useful because it gave her a chance to see if she could cope with the work. The first day in the hospital Margaret describes as being ‘exciting, scary, exhilarating and daunting’, but she felt sure that she was capable of the work. Psychiatric nurses’ work could be very strenuous as there were a huge number of patients. Margaret recalls feeling that the hospital was extremely short staffed. Despite the challenges of the work, she describes feeling a sense of duty to the patients. ‘Who is going to look after these people if we don’t do it?’
As a psychiatric nursing student Margaret’s duties varied depending on which ward she was stationed at. On the geriatric ward the work was ‘heavy and relentless’. The nurses’ duties included toileting, washing, changing and feeding the patients and a lot of cleaning. ‘We did it all’. On the acute wards when working with patients with neuroses, nurses mostly observed and supported patients. If stationed with patients with more difficult conditions nurses would help out with activities of daily living, medications, dressings and diversional therapy.
There was a strong sense of camaraderie amongst the student nurses in the Nurses’ Home. Although it had strict rules Margaret describes living there as being ‘a lot of fun’. Many of the nurses would sneak out through the window at night. Margaret explains however that the long hours of nurse training meant that nurses were often too tired to socialise.
During training Margaret became pregnant but decided not to get married. ‘I opted to take a different road in my life’. She describes having the support of her family and colleagues with her decision. The matron would not allow her to continue her training whilst pregnant so she had to take some time off, but returned a few months after giving birth to Rachel in 1968. ‘I remember studying with a baby in one arm with the bottle shoved in its mouth and the textbook in the other.’
Upon completing her training Margaret stayed on at Oakley Hospital and worked as a staff nurse before being made a sister in 1969. As a sister she was given significantly more responsibility, and was often the afternoon supervisor of all the female wards with responsibility for the care of 600 patients. In 1970 Margaret decided to extend her training by undertaking a two year course in general nursing. ‘I really wanted to be a more effective psychiatric nurse’. Margaret started training at Auckland Hospital, and recalls that her transition was ‘ghastly’. At the general hospital there was a strong hierarchy that had not existed in the same way at Oakley. Margaret describes the junior staff being treated with disrespect on the wards and the senior nurse being ‘unnecessarily stern’.
The general nurse training provided Margaret with a better understanding of ‘anatomy, physiology and disease processes’ than she had gained in psychiatric nurse training. The training programme, unlike the 40 week bridging course, provided Margaret with the opportunity to work overseas as a registered nurse. She also discovered a love of critical care nursing whilst working in the hospital, and stayed on in the unit after registering.
After a short spell working as a pharmaceutical representative and taking some Arts courses at the University of Auckland, Margaret and her nine year old daughter travelled to the United Kingdom in 1977. Margaret worked in various jobs in the UK, which included nursing in a private hospital, working as a general factotum in an equestrian centre in Scotland and caring for disabled children in a home at Lyme Regis. Returning to New Zealand in 1981, Margaret got a job as the manager of a small eldercare hospital in Auckland. She describes the hospital as having a poor reputation which took eight months to turn around. In her work Margaret drew on her experiences of psychiatric care. She was able to introduce new techniques and innovations to the hospital to provide better care for the patients.
Margaret went on to work in marketing for a retirement village in Hillsborough before spending over four years between 1986 and 1990 in Australia working in several different hospitals and also as a business broker. She then took jobs in agency nursing and relieving back in New Zealand prior to working in disaster management for the major public hospitals and community services in Auckland. In 2002 she became a life coach, which was rewarding, but decided to return to nursing in 2004 because she needed to maintain clinical hours to retain her practicing certificate. In 2010 Margaret became a self-employed staff nurse contracting to two elderly care facilities in Auckland. Although there have been significant challenges throughout her nursing career, Margaret has loved what nursing has enabled her to do. Looking back, she reflects that she would not change it if she could.
This link will take you to the abstract summarising the full interview with Margaret Stevenson: