Phyllis Paul (nee Nelson) was born in Hastings in 1933. Her mother joined the Red Cross during the Second World War and worked as a VA (Voluntary Aid) nurse in the community and at Masterton Hospital. Phyllis believes her own contact with nurses during this time strongly influenced her decision to go nursing. Her mother was pleased when she applied, and, while her father initially said that she’d ‘never cope with it’, he became supportive later on.
Phyllis was three weeks younger than the minimum age of eighteen for nurse training at Masterton Hospital but was accepted because her mother had worked there. Phyllis’s class was small and they were all great friends. She remembers the initial loss of privacy that they all had to adjust to living in the Nurses’ Home, but that having a paid job away from home provided security. They had different uniforms for on and off the wards, changing for meals, in an attempt to control infection. She reflects on differences between the uniforms at Masterton and Christchurch Hospitals.
As well as lectures, in her first six weeks Phyllis’s class learned basic nursing skills, including sponging patients and making beds. Phyllis remembers that she learned to run, and had ‘never had to work so hard in all my life’. The junior nurses also did most of the cleaning jobs – ‘we just accepted this is what you do’. While she recalls the tutor sisters being very good, Phyllis says that they learned a lot on the wards from just watching their seniors. Masterton Hospital had a very strict hierarchy, which regulated the students’ behaviour and manner of addressing their seniors.
After Phyllis sat her junior state exams, she and some of her classmates left due to feeling discontented with the hard work, curfews and hierarchy of nursing. She resigned and recalls going to the Home Sister to hand in her uniform. The Home Sister said to Phyllis she was ‘just going to put your uniforms aside because I know that you'll be back’. Phyllis’s boyfriend at the time had a sister who was a hairdresser, so Phyllis went on to pursue hairdressing. However, she found that this was an unsatisfying vocation after nursing and so she returned to her training, this time at Wairau Hospital, in 1954.
Phyllis remembers that the atmosphere at Wairau Hospital was ‘homely’. The nurses worked six days a week and the Wairau matron designed the roster especially so that girls who lived out of town could visit home every six weeks. Phyllis remembers it as being a little less strict than Masterton Hospital, but still formal. The nurses always had to ask permission of a senior before finishing their shift, and Phyllis today still expects her staff to report to her before leaving.
The nurses had their own rooms at the Nurses’ Home, and Phyllis recalls that the grounds were ‘lovely’. The Nurses’ Home had a lot of rules, and although they tried to avoid being caught breaking them Phyllis considers the rules to have been ‘part of life’. The nurses had active social lives: Phyllis kept up with her friends and visited home in Masterton, and the nurses went out together to milk bars, shopping and to dances. There was a ball every fortnight during ball season: Phyllis felt she couldn’t wear the same dress each time so she made her own with her sewing machine. The nurses’ boyfriends were expected to wait for the nurses in the ‘Beau Parlour’ at the Nurses’ Home, having been escorted in by the home sister. ‘Practically every nurse smoked’, although Phyllis didn’t because her future husband didn’t like women smoking. The nurses were not allowed alcohol on the premises, but they sometimes hid it in their rooms.
Phyllis had been tempted to abandon her training when she became engaged, but her tutor sister convinced her to finish, saying she’d regret it if she left. Phyllis received the results of her exams while at home in Masterton preparing for her wedding. She returned to work at Wairau Hospital as a registered nurse in the women’s surgical ward soon after her marriage. She reflects on how nurse training had changed her.
Phyllis worked at Cook Hospital in Gisborne during her oldest children’s early years before moving to Blenheim and working in her husband’s photography studio. She went back to work in the men’s ward at Wairau Hospital in 1972 after ten years away from nursing, and says that this was a ‘sharp learning curve’. She became a ward sister there in 1973, before moving to work at the Accident and Emergency department in 1976 where she ‘loved the urgency’. She then became the charge nurse of a mixed surgical ward until 1984, which gave her new responsibilities.
Phyllis was encouraged to do further education, and so she and three others from Wairau Hospital completed a degree extramurally through Massey University. This was all theoretical rather than practical. In 1992, she became an infection control nurse looking at policies, procedures and standards to prevent infection, and was involved in planning a new hospital from the point of view of infection control. In 1996, she was the convenor and organiser of the New Zealand Nurses’ Organisation 15th three-day Infection Control Conference in Blenheim. Phyllis also worked part time with the Cancer Society, working mainly with raising awareness for breast cancer, and with the blood bank from 1997. She was awarded the Zonta Woman of Achievement Award for the Cancer Society, and the Blenheim Borough Council Civic Honour for cancer services in 1986. She reflects on the importance of her further studies.
The last fifteen years of Phyllis's career were spent caring for the aged and she eventually retired aged 80. Phyllis believes the profession of nursing to have changed over the course of her career: patients are only in hospital while receiving medical care and they are discharged as soon as their treatment is finished, whereas previously patients remained in hospital for weeks. While the profession is different now, Phyllis believes the basic principles of caring for a person, preventing infection and making their life better remain the same. She considers herself to have had a rewarding career with much variety and friendship.
This link will take you to the abstract summarising the full interview with Phyllis Paul: