Velda Lorraine Kelly was born in Pukerangi in the Maniatoto in 1937. She grew up in Hampden and travelled an hour to Oamaru to attend secondary school. At school Velda did not consider nursing as a career but her mother always said she was going to be a nurse by the way she behaved. Leaving school after completing the fifth form Velda initially worked in the local Post Office and then in a bank when her family moved to Dunedin. After leaving her job in banking Velda decided to pursue a career in nursing. Her father was initially surprised to hear about her decision to be a nurse, until he learned that she planned to be a psychiatric nurse. The family had some connections with the local psychiatric hospital.
Beginning her training at Seacliff Mental Hospital north of Dunedin in 1955, Velda found the Nurses’ Home to be pleasant and welcoming. She started on the ward on her first day without any training. The training was largely on the job but Velda felt that other nurses supported her. She describes being tempted to leave within the first six months but decided to stay to prove herself to her father.
The hospital was short staffed on the female side, which meant that the nurses were frequently required to work long hours. Velda describes being rostered to work a long day of more than twelve hours followed by one short day. The duties of psychiatric nurses included feeding patients and assisting with treatments such as electro-convulsive therapy (ECT). As well as this it was the nurses’ role to be the domestics of the hospital and they would clean the wards alongside the patients – dusting surfaces, scrubbing and polishing floors, and cleaning high windows. Velda describes the cold conditions in the winter on the wards where the nurses were charged with tending to the fires.
In the mid-1950s, during her training, Velda recalls the introduction of psychotropic medications. She describes dramatic improvements in some patients’ behaviour after receiving their treatments. Patients who had once been uncommunicative could hold a conversation.
The hospital was divided between men and women. Male staff managed the male wards and female staff care for the female patients. Although the work was virtually the same, Velda recalls that male nurses were paid more than female nurses in the 1950s. There was a considerable amount of interaction between the male and female staff outside of work hours. Dances and gatherings were sometimes held in the nurses’ home, and the male staff would be invited.
Sports teams were another feature of the hospital social life, with rugby, netball, soccer and tennis tournaments occurring annually. There was a significant amount of interaction between junior and senior staff because the social events run in the village were attended by many of the hospital staff. Alcohol consumption was infrequent at Seacliff because it was a ‘dry area’ with the closest pub in Dunedin. The only time Velda recalls people drinking alcohol was at the Annual Ball, which was a very big hospital event.
In 1957 Velda left Seacliff to move to Christchurch to be closer to her family because her father had died. She took six months off from training before continuing at Sunnyside Mental Hospital. She found the transition relatively easy, although there were some changes. She found Sunnyside to be more advanced in some ways especially with regards to the number of people on medication.
After graduating in 1960 Velda was appointed as charge nurse at Sunnyside. She was placed on Ward five which dealt with ‘disturbed women’. As charge nurse she was primarily responsible for managing patient care and hospital stock and ensuring the ward was clean and tidy. In 1967 she was made Supervisor at Sunnyside and then Assistant Matron in the 1970s. Velda was involved in setting up a rehabilitation programme in the ‘Disturbed Ward’, which involved teaching courses that ranged from self-care skills to academic subjects.
From the mid-1960s reforms were being made to the hospital system. The wards were integrated so that men and women worked alongside one another. By the late 1970s there was a push to move mental health patients back out into the community. There had been the development of psychiatric district nursing care that aimed to support patients in the community. As chair of the rehabilitation committee, Velda was involved in establishing staffed community houses.
Leaving Sunnyside in the 1990s, Velda went on to work for the Canterbury Hospital Board and Healthlink South Ltd. She was involved in establishing and managing clinical support services for mental health, which included building a new pharmacy. Throughout her career, even when working in management roles, Velda reflects that the most important thing was always her relationship with patients.
This link will take you to the abstract summarising the full interview with Velda Kelly: