Catherine now lives with a greater sense of self, both in awareness and acceptance. Hers is a life no longer defined by role or what she does. It is no less empathetic or caring in the living of it merely less effortful in its doing and more vibrant in each moment. It was a challenge at first and remains so for others however she is content.
A paint spatter of indiscriminate jobs dotted the canvas of my early post school years. Then on a summer holiday in Russell my thoughts landed on nursing, I applied and was accepted. Why? Who knows, not me! But now I imagine, even though I had decided on it, that rather it had chosen me. A carer, a fixer upper-er, with a make things ok nature. I mean what other vocation was there? Little did I know how much it would nip and tuck at that nature, at my self. Shapeshifting yet holding steady at my core and perhaps even growing more myself because of it.
In the early ‘80s nursing was already under resourced with a union that rolled over in pay negotiations, not listening to or even asking the opinion of its members. Quite a contrast to the current environment. But I knew nothing of that politic or the heavy oppressive male domination that skulked around corridors, that strode about ward rounds and made demands in written Drs orders.
There I am in my photo ID, fresh faced, standing in left profile. White tunic, button front, smooth from the swish of the bodies of nurses gone before; laundered in the basement, new ones collected for each shift. Epaulettes white with a red capital “I” for Introductory across both shoulders.
I lived in and out and in again in the Nurses Home, a filing cabinet of a building with mostly female cohabitants, comrades in arms. We linked arms every day and launched into whatever was before us. At that time we were employed by the Hospital Board and there was little supervision by tutors. We went about our clinical learning on the heels of a Staff Nurse, a one-on-one mentorship of sorts, depending on the ward and shift you were rostered to.
We were dedicated, a solid mass of energy, intensely idealistic , a unique cohort we had an edge and liked to live somewhat dangerously. Perhaps this came from the experiences we witnessed and were part of. Nursing is visceral inside and out; it is volatile and variable in every way. You experience the best, the worst and everything between. And thus, you cope as best you can together.
There was space in the old hospital building. Space to wheel a patient to the Day Room for a smoke, windows open to minimise the smell and likelihood of alarm, from a Charge Nurse or an actual alarm. Space in the Linen Room if still hungover from the night before to catch a wink or two on full bags of soft fresh laundry, before morning handover. Space to linger in a side room on a night shift, enjoying a quick inhalation of O2 by nasal prongs from a portable cylinder, to pep you up until 7 am shift change.
There was AIDS and discrimination and fear, a woman in an iron lung, as flat as Roadrunner when the boulder falls on him instead of the Wylie Coyote. There was singing in the intensive care specialists band on a Friday night at Grafton Oaks, paid in drinks, go figure. There was holding the hands of strangers. Bikers, too fast they hit the roundabout on New Years Eve; no helmets, no mercy,
no identity, dying alone with a student to witness their last word or breath. There was a first birth, a thespian who trod the boards with a theatre company I long admired. There was every age, stage and vulnerability.
There was the calm of a night shift until the old lady in Bedspace 1 Room 2, disoriented on her Halcion climbs over her cot sides. Both she and her glass Redivac drains crash to the floor and shatter blood while roommates stir and grumble. There were three bells when the team came running white coats flapping, old ECG machines rattling sometimes in time and too late at others. 2 bells for security when the gangs got stroppy, tired of waiting for pain relief for their bedridden mate in traction. Always respectful of nurses, strange code that. Then mostly always one bell, a call to a bedside to meet a patients’ needs. There was bullying by men and women doctors and nurses. We were everything and not much of anything at times.
But when the work was done, we would laugh and cry and dance along Grafton Bridge. Sneaking out after hours and sneaking boyfriends in knowing Shirley and Josie would tut tut but turn away with a secret smile.
When I think back to that only yesterday time I miss it in a way. But I do not want it anymore.
“16th June 2022
Tena Koe Catherine,
I would like to formally acknowledge your service and commitment and care to the public of New Zealand and thank you for your contribution to the profession of nursing.
Nga mihi nui
There it is, nearly 40 years. It is enough now and it was almost too much then. Time to get on with the work of life.
Catherine has left the nursing profession after many years of dedicated care for others, including more recently, close family members. Writing memoir offers her a way of exploring this caring journey, its origin, progress and the inevitable detour at the fork in the road.
Career counselling in Form 7 identified law and journalism as paths out of high school. Instead, France called and I answered putting all thoughts of the future on hold for a classic Kiwi OE. On returning home a series of admin-type jobs filled the next two years. Insurance claims processing, data entry of health statistics, law clerking and, lord knows why, the first year of a Certificate in Commerce at Auckland Technical Institute.
Then a pause, restless, my family fracturing, I embarked on solo travel around New Zealand. Just prior to this I had applied to the Auckland Hospital Board School of Nursing for placement in their training programme. While I was away the acceptance for interview came through. Without any idea of why I had decided on this as a way forward, I flew through the process. It was only when I buttoned up my white tunic with its “introductory” epaulettes and stepped onto the ward that I realised I had found the perfect match. I had entered a world purpose built to fit my nature and nurture. Already a fixer, an empath, a smoother, a soother, a listener, a problem solver, an intuitive carer, I had followed neither career guidance nor conscious decision making to get here. Perhaps the road chose me.
Thirty-five years on, a fork in the road appeared in the form of my father’s failing health. As his daughter I found being confronted with his frailty surprisingly difficult. Similarly, reflecting on my own profession and its systemic failure to care for him at that time was a shock. The dual role of nurse-daughter became the double-edged sword with which I would fight for his rights. I cared more for him than I ever had and the system cared less for him than I ever could have imagined.
I lasted one more year in nursing, leaving to care full time for my mother as she withdrew little by little into her contented dementia. My nursing experience enabled me to honour what had been her request, articulated some time before diagnosis, that she wanted to remain living at home, in her community until she died.
The road travelled today is paved with all that has gone before and stretches out waiting to be chosen each day with each step toward a time of greater caring for myself. I choose it.
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