Stewart Shepherd was born in Christchurch in 1946. He enjoyed biology at school and trained in First Aid at St John’s from age eleven, so it was a fairly easy decision to go nursing when he finished school. His father completed his training in psychiatric nursing around the time Stewart was born, and worked at Sunnyside Hospital. Stewart explains the stigma against psychiatric nursing, not only in his father’s time but also when he himself was a student psychiatric nurse in later years.
Stewart began general nurse training in 1965 at Burwood Hospital in Christchurch, along with eight other male nurses. This was the first time the hospital had had enough male nurses to form their own programme. He says that his first day ‘was a little bit spooky but I had a bravado or ego in those days ... so that didn't worry me’. He immediately noticed the subservience that was required of the nurses. He says there were ‘petty expectations’ in the wards, including the bed-making technique, and that he resisted standing up and opening doors for doctors because ‘that was foreign to a lot of us guys’. The male nurses were on the same salary as the females – which was ‘a dramatic drop’ from other male work at the time – but they had many different rules. The men were allowed to be married during their training, they were called ‘Mr’ instead of ‘nurse’, and their curfew rules were less strict than those for the female nurses. However, there were some restrictions. The male nurses were not allowed to work with female patients or children, were not included in obstetric classes, and their anatomical charts had stickers over the female genitalia. Stewart also recalls that there were common beliefs about male nurses which meant that people often assumed he he was gay. He explains how male nurses tended to be less tolerant of strict ‘pedantic’ nursing rules.
Stewart remembers that the student nurses were discouraged from talking to patients, and that tidiness was prioritised above patient care. Despite this, he made time to talk to patients while he was doing their procedures. He enjoyed the nursing work but says his ‘humanity was squashed in terms of relationship with patients’. Male nurses were often called on to assist with difficult patients: Stewart remembers some gang members once intimidating the nursing staff, and he talked them down – ‘it was not quite my role but I felt I could probably manage the situation better than if they got security in’. He explains how he was questioning of traditional hospital protocols that undermined good patient care.
After he graduated in 1968, Stewart worked for a year as a staff nurse at Burwood Hospital. He enjoyed the work but felt dissatisfied with the hierarchical system. After this, he took some time out working at a Sexually Transmitted Diseases clinic at Christchurch Hospital and volunteering to care for a paraplegic man in the community, and later working at the concrete works. He moved to Sunnyside Hospital in 1970 where he was appointed temporarily as a charge nurse before starting his psychiatric nurse training. The training lasted two years, much of it on the wards. Stewart enjoyed it there, and says he felt he could use his skills ‘more autonomously’. Sunnyside was ‘a totally different environment’. He remembers the long-term wards being ‘fairly archaic’ and regimented, but that he ‘made a difference by interacting with clients, getting their trust’. He explains his transition from Burwood to psychiatric nursing.
After he graduated as a psychiatric nurse, Stewart remained at Sunnyside Hospital where he nursed on an adolescent ward and in the Fergusson Clinic (the acute wards). He comments on the focus on psychotherapy and group work. At Fergusson, all the staff and patients would meet as a group each morning to plan the day’s programme. Other, more intensive groups were offered for people with depression or anxiety. He describes the psychotherapy groups, ‘talk therapy’ and the boundaries of the nursing role.
In 1972, the year he married Julie, he became a nurse tutor at Sunnyside Hospital School of Nursing, and for some time worked as acting charge tutor. He then took over teaching the bridging course for general nurses coming to psychiatric nursing, and so was able to incorporate his own experiences into his teaching. Around this time the new comprehensive nursing programmes were beginning, and Stewart remembers there being ‘a lot of negativity’ towards them and questions about how students could learn if they weren’t hands-on in the wards. Although he had his own questions, he could see the value of nurses having an academic basis for their practice. In 1974 Stewart did the Diploma in Nursing at the School of Advanced Nursing Studies (SANS) in Wellington, which he found ‘absolutely brilliant’ and in 1976 began tutoring at the Christchurch Polytechnic. He believed in the value of role play to teach mental health concepts but found that this was sometimes difficult to implement because of financial constraints that restricted the number of nurse tutors per class. During his time at the Polytechnic, there were a number of cutbacks to mental health teaching which Stewart resisted strongly, ‘I was always battling for mental health’. Stewart remembers the mental health team as a ‘solid unit’ and says the highlight of teaching was ‘the opportunity to challenge young and inquiring minds’. He discusses the value of his SANS Diploma.
Stewart completed his Bachelor’s degree in Health Sciences by distance learning through Charles Sturt University in 1995, and once he had finished he taught research to undergraduate students which was ‘a challenge’. He also taught students in the clinical setting where he would work alongside them to care for their patients. He notes that being a tutor ‘was not just an academic thing, there was a lot of practical stuff’. He reflects on his role as a tutor.
Stewart returned to clinical practice in 2001 taking a role as a staff nurse at Hillmorton Hospital. He comments that treatment has changed in mental health, with psychotherapy diminishing and medical approaches increasing. He says that despite the medicalisation, he still feels that talking with patients is important and that he encourages students to record in the notes what they have done with their clients, and not just the medications they have administered. Reflecting on his career, Stewart says ‘I am pleased that I didn't actually decide to go into concrete’. He has found nursing to be personally challenging but ‘I have high standards and I am working to maintain them’.
This link will take you to the abstract summarising the full interview with Stewart Shepherd: