THE YEAR THAT + QUIZ
My second year of nursing training was in 1975 at Auckland Hospital. Nursing was what I wanted to do then. I thought it was all about putting bandages on people. I was keen on the idea of healing and I liked the starchy uniforms with the epaulettes. I had pockets full of red pens and blue pens and surgical scissors — and I was ready to save lives.
But no one had told me people would die. Careers day at Selwyn College hadn’t mentioned that part.
So it came as a huge shock one afternoon when I was on the 2pm to 11pm shift and I found myself looking after a guy who was on the way out. In those days, you were lucky if you were even given a side room at that stage. If they couldn’t fix you, it became someone else’s problem because hospital staff felt they had failed somehow.
I was trying to help him, but he was slipping away. He knew it and I didn’t. He was saying: “I’m going,” and I was saying: “You’ll be a box of birds, tomorrow.” I was still writing up charts about his bowel movements and temperature and he was getting weaker and weaker.
He was on his own and had no family. We weren’t that busy, so I was able to sit and talk with him. He said that if he’d had children he might have had a granddaughter my age. I was holding his hand, feeling his pulse and then suddenly, just before 11, he had left the building.
The next minute a message came over the intercom saying there had been an accident on the motorway and asking any spare staff to go down and help with the incoming.
I shot downstairs where the ambulances were coming in. I rushed to meet one, and as I opened the doors there was a woman in the third stage of labour. I actually caught the baby. Until that moment, I had never even done any baby stuff. I was very proud that they called him Joseph.
It was one of those moments in your life. Within about eight minutes I had seen one go and one arrive. It was a big deal to me. I realised it was what they call the circle of life and it was normal. I looked into the baby’s eye and I could see old Bob, who had just left.
It changed how I thought about my role. That year I delivered lots of babies and worked in lots of wards where people died. I did a lot of obstetrics and midwifery and ended up having a stint as a charge nurse in the children’s hospital.
That time was a turning point in medicine, too, because there was a lot of dissatisfaction with health services: babies were born in stainless steel theatres and mums were hurried along because the obstetrician had to play golf. Next thing you could give birth with dolphins if you wanted.
And I think it’s no coincidence that now I’m patron of Hospice. That’s an idea shared to me by Dame Joy Cowley — that midwives help a little soul arrive on the planet and people who work in hospices are like midwives for the next transition.
As told to Paul Little.