Born in 1928, Phyllis Bawden (nee Nelson) was raised by her mother and grandmother on the family farm in Murchison. Her mother was a nurse, working part-time relieving at the local cottage hospital. Phyllis recalls that her mother would often go away for periods of time, sometimes for several weeks, to attend to nursing commitments. Not liking her mother going away, Phyllis was ‘adamant’ that she would not become a nurse. However, when home from boarding school on holiday Phyllis worked in the Murchison Cottage Hospital and was encouraged by the Sister-in-Charge to go nursing.
The nursing applicants had to pass a medical examination and provide references before being allowed admission to nursing training. Phyllis was concerned that she might not pass the chest X-ray because she had been exposed to tuberculosis. However she was accepted into training at Christchurch Public Hospital in 1947. She recalls that most of the girls were fresh out of school, although there were a couple of girls in their early twenties who had already spent some time working. They spent twelve weeks in preliminary school where they were known as ‘pinkies’ because of the colour of their uniform. The uniform changed as nurses moved up the ranks. At preliminary school Phyllis describes practising patient care on mannequins and dolls.
Trainee nurses had to live in the Nurses’ Home, which had strict rules and regulations. Phyllis recalls ‘pinkies’ having the earliest curfew of 9.30pm which was extended until 10pm when they became Junior student nurses. She describes some girls having fun breaking the curfew. However, most nurses were too tired to have much of a social life.
The student nurses developed close friendships living together in the Nurses’ Home, but they would only mix with their class, never anybody senior. Groups would sometimes go for picnics together and church dances were a popular pastime for some young nurses.
Phyllis describes nursing students being ‘better off’ than women training to be teachers or studying at university. Although in some instances nurses did not have better pay, they had uniforms, lectures, housing and food paid for.
After completing her training, Phyllis worked in the surgical ward for six months before moving on to study maternity nursing in Hastings. She recalls that in her maternity training doctors were usually present for deliveries and mothers would stay in hospital for at least a week. Completing her training at the end of 1951, Phyllis went on to pursue a career as a public health nurse. To qualify as a public health nurse, women had to undertake the Plunket four-month training. This was held in Dunedin both at the Karitane Hospital and out in the community with Plunket nurses. Towards the end of training Phyllis was ‘given word’ that she would be sent to work in Kohukohu, in Northland.
In 1952, after a three-week Public Health orientation in Wellington, Phyllis made her way up to Kohukohu along with another nurse. She explains that initially their title was ‘District Health nurse’ but changed to ‘Public Health nurse’ over time. The two nurses were responsible for dealing to the health needs of the local communities. Having grown up in the country, Phyllis was sent to remote areas with country roads. Sometimes they had to travel by boat as there were no roads. One such area was Rangi Point, where they would hold clinics every three months to treat young school children.
Phyllis describes the poor communication technology available in the communities she served. The telephone exchange in Kohukohu closed at midnight, and in the surrounding areas there would only be one phone and it would be closed at 6pm. A common means of communication involved a child riding from place to place on a horse delivering notes. Giving immunisations at local schools was one of Phyllis’ responsibilities. Children initially tried to avoid injections by asking their parents not to give consent. Phyllis worked out that the best way to get the children to have their injections was to give lollies as a reward.
Coming from the South Island, Phyllis had not had a lot of exposure to Māori people. In many of the areas she worked the populations were mostly Māori and had ‘very few Pākeha’. She describes that when she arrived, the Māori communities ‘welcomed [her] with open arms’. Working closely with Māori families Phyllis was conscious of Māori customs and was careful not to violate protocol. She was held in high regard with many of the whānau who asked her to be present at important times.
Living in Kohukohu, Phyllis met Stan, whom she married in 1955. She had to take a break from nursing because as a married woman she was not allowed to be employed by the Health Department. During this time she worked on the family farm and raised her three children. In 1970, when her youngest was five years old, she returned to work as the District and Public Health nurse. Although the work was supposed to be part time, there was so much to do it became a full-time job. Working for the next eighteen years, Phyllis retired at age sixty but continued to remain closely connected to the local community.
This link will take you to the abstract summarising the full interview with Phyllis Bawden: