Born in 1940, Margaret Rae Brooker (nee Watson) grew up on a farm in the Waikato. She left school at end of the sixth form with the idea of nursing, with her parents’ encouragement. She worked in a bank for a year before turning eighteen and being eligible for nursing school.
Rae applied to Waikato Hospital as it was close to home and it was also ‘one of the biggest one-campus hospitals in Australasia’. She began her training in April 1958. She was in a class of about forty-five people, all girls, who all came from Waikato or Auckland. She remembers her first day as being ‘very exciting!’ On that day, the students were schooled in the basic day-to-day running of the hospital, including where everything was and how to wear to uniforms correctly.
Rae describes her first three months in Preliminary School as ‘a whole new world’. Each student was assigned to a ward – Rae was put in a men’s surgical ward – and she enjoyed this work. There were eight-hour shifts with slightly different tasks for each, but Rae remembers that most of the work concerned cleaning. She also remembers that ‘in those days there was such a hierarchy’: tasks on the ward were allocated based on the nurses’ seniority. ‘Doctors were like Gods’ – on morning shifts ‘after breakfast the ward had to be very tidy and hushed’ as doctors came for their rounds. Junior nurses had little to do with doctors. She describes a typical day.
The students had lectures as part of their training, and Rae remembers that the tutor sisters were ‘on the whole very good’. Doctors provided teaching when helping the students with procedures. Rae’s year was one of the first to include maternity nursing as part of the curriculum, and she believes it was possibly included because maternity nursing was important for many aspects of women's health. They did some community nursing, but that was the only time they left the hospital: unlike some of the bigger hospitals, the students didn’t go to other hospitals for different parts of their training. As people stayed in hospital a long time in those days, Rae remembers that ‘we got to know some of them very well’. She recalls a long-term male patient saying how nice it was to have a smile, and says she ‘learned it doesn’t cost anything to smile and that it means a lot to people’. She explains the importance of learning on the job.
Rae lived in the Nurses’ Home at Waikato Hospital. There, she made life-time friendships which she thinks is a result of having ‘experienced so much together’. There were hospital activities, including participating in a choir, sports teams, hockey and swimming, as well as nurses’ dances, and senior nursing students sometimes went to house surgeons’ parties. Visitors were allowed in the Nurses’ Home, but not in the bedrooms. Rae recalls that the students did not mix with seniors off-duty – the hierarchy existed off the wards as well. While the students had social lives, Rae remembers the Nurses’ Home rules restricted going out. She reflects on how obedient nurse trainees were.
Most senior nursing students – in their third year – moved out of the Nurses’ Home in search of more freedom. They also had a good time on weekends off or holidays: Rae often went home and took a friend with her, or they went hitch-hiking which she says was seen as quite appropriate in those days. She remembers one particular holiday where almost the entire year went to Mount Ruapehu. Rae had two boyfriends during her training, both of whom were medical students. She met her husband at a hospital residents’ party. Some of her class left before their training was completed because of marriage or pregnancy. She found flatting a particularly memorable experience.
Rae graduated in 1961, and won the Hospital Silver Medal for ‘best all round nurse’. She was then asked to work as a staff nurse at Tokoroa Hospital, before working at Waikato Hospital and then overseas at St George’s Hospital in London. She recalls that nurses were poorly paid in England, but that theatres gave spare tickets to the hospital so she ‘went out nearly every night’. She describes the St George’s Hospital nurses and her own experiences there.
Rae returned to Waikato as a sister-in-charge of the children’s medical ward for a year before she was married in 1965. She found she needed ‘stimulation after marriage’, so went back to work as a tutor sister, teaching junior students. After her four children were slightly older, she became a part-time student health nurse at Waikato Polytechnic in 1977, and a Marriage Guidance tutor from 1976 to 1993, where she said her nursing experience was very valuable. In 1989, she was a part of the patient advocacy system set up in Hamilton, utilising her Marriage Guidance and nursing skills. She was a Health Consumer Advocate from 1989 to 1999 and a Community Magistrate from 1999 to 2012.
Rae believes that despite the changes, the basic aspects of nursing are still the same today. She thinks current nurses miss out by not living in a Nurses’ Home, and reflects that nursing opens a huge variety of opportunities.
This link will take you to the abstract summarising the full interview with Rae Brooker: