Above: Four of Hastings hospital’s first nursing graduates from left, front Queenie Winters (nee Greenfield), Nancy Couch (Nan), Elsie Leipst and (rear) Grace Clemo (nee Burgess) 1942 was a memorable year when they all passed their State final exams with honours.
Below: Fifty years later, as they meet in Hastings to mark the occasion. The nurses are seated in the same order as above with the matron of their training days, Miss Ida Russell at rear right.
Hastings’ first nursing trainees hold jubilee
By Sue Thomas
Finding skeletons in their beds, being locked in laundry rooms and breaking trays full of thermometers were recalled by five Hastings women in May.
Fifty years ago, nurses Elsie Leipst, Nancy Couch (Nan), Grace Clemo (nee Burgess) and Queenie Winters (nee Greenfield) made an anxious entrance to the Hastings hospital to begin their nursing training.
They were the first class to train at the hospital.
The gruelling hours spent scrubbing floors, mopping up after frequent floods and attending lectures in spare time, paid dividends since all four passed their State finals with honours.
“I was as green as a raw cabbage when I went nursing and barely knew the facts of life. Male patients used to really have us young nurses on. They’d ask for a silver slipper when they really meant a bedpan,” recalled Queenie.
For Queenie and her colleagues, nursing had some humorous moments – like the night her twin sister jumped into Queenie’s bed after her hot water bottle burst.
“I didn’t have any idea who it was. But in those days men didn’t just crawl into women’s beds, only girlfriends did.”
Grace recalls the day when a porter deliberately locked her in a laundry cupboard in the hospital corridor.
“I was so afraid to yell for help in case a senior surgeon or some other illustrious person passed by.”
Dummy in bed
There were some close shaves with authority too.
One night Grace lay in bed almost too afraid to watch the duty matron inspect a nurse’s bed. The nurse, who was out on the town, had made a dummy to cover for her absence. The matron walked on.
Queenie remembers telling a friend to put a mat in the nurses’ lounge up the chimney since nurses were continually tripping over it and injuring themselves. A cleaner reported the incident to the matron who told the nurses if the culprits did not confess, their leave would be cancelled.
“I had to own up, because my sister was coming to stay during the holidays. About three of us gingerly took ourselves to the matron’s office to confess.:”
Elsie hardly slept one night worrying about confessing having broken a tray full of thermometers.
“We had to report each breakage. I had already broken three in a month and was terrified what matron would say after I had broken a tray full. But she was most understanding”.
The nurses said they didn’t have all the treatments and technology available to nurses today.
“We had to clean, scrub, and make up endless dressing trays.”
“But we saw many changes – the introduction of antibiotics and modern post-operative care. In our day patients who had an appendix removed would remain in hospital a fortnight but now they are out within a day or two.
“If we hadn’t completed our duties, there was certainly no running off when the clock struck finishing time. Sometimes we would be called to duty early, in order to get all the patients washed and fed before doctors rounds and visiting”.
When earthquakes struck, as they often did, nurses spent time reassuring patients and making endless cups of tea.
“One night I had a corpse in one room and a man on the bedpan in another. When an earthquake struck, a nurse told me to stop worrying about the corpse and attend to the patient on the bedpan,” says Elsie.
“We all spent time at the Napier hospital nursing patients who would eventually die from whooping cough, typhoid and diptheria. It was a very sad time.”
They believe much of the comradeship and team spirit they shared on the wards was fostered through living in the nurses’ home.
“It was there we learnt to laugh, cry and share our worries and study with one another. Sadly, many nurses today who live out of the hostel, miss out on that comradeship.”
They were not angels of mercy all the time.
Elsie recalls the time during theatre she deliberately put the senior surgeon’s hat (which she found hideous) with a patient’s clothing in the hope he would not be seen with it again.
When the surgeon complained about losing his hat, Elsie innocently apologised for sending it back to a ward with a patient.
More practical then
“Nursing in our day was more practical than academic, as it is today. It was constantly instilled in us that our priority was always the well being, comfort and care of our patients. To go nursing we needed only a desire to serve others and character references, one from a church minister,” they said.
“Many people say we are still very bossy.”
“We had to bike or walk everywhere – there were no such things as cars. We thought nothing of walking regularly from the hospital into the city.”
The nurses remembered the pride they felt when they earned their first pay packet – 10s [shillings] a week.
From that they had to pay for shoes, stockings and study books. The latter costing 25s each. Once qualified the nurses earned £2/10/- weekly.
When stockings were 4s 11d a pair, the nurses couldn’t afford to buy new ones when they laddered.
“We ended up with more darns than stocking.”
A highlight for the nurses last month was sharing their memories with matron, Miss Ida Russell.
“We had much admiration for Miss Russell, who was our friend and boss. She was a modest and dedicated person who at one stage worked 13 months without pay.”
Elsie and Nan’s nursing careers have spanned 40 years each. Elsie spent nine years nursing abroad in England, Shetland Islands, Israel and Korea, while Nan nursed for 12 years at Royston Hospital, and served as home sister at the Hastings hospital.
Last month’s celebrations also included an afternoon tea in Havelock North with 16 other nursing colleagues.