Retired nurses reunite to reminisce
Memories of mischief, comradeship and fear-inspiring matrons came ﬂooding back last week when a group of retired Hawke’s Bay nurses reunited to reﬂect on the past.
The nurses, most of whom are aged in their eighties, congregate at Havelock North’s J H Mason Retirement Village each fortnight to swap stories about their days at the old Hastings Memorial Hospital.
Although some started as early as 1939 and others started later, each shares the same unbreakable bond that saw them through the often difficult life of nursing.
“And most of us have managed to keep up the friendship for sixty years,” says Elsie Leipst of Havelock North, who started nursing in 1939.
“We all lived in the nurses’ home beside the hospital and we were one big family – we had to be,” she says.
In the face of sisters enforcing draconian rules, long hours and demanding physical labour, the nurses – most in their late teens – managed to create their own entertainment.
“We did – we had to make our own fun,” says Isa Jennings of Hastings, who helped to organise the gathering. “One time, two commercial travellers (salesmen) phoned the nurses’ home and asked if two nurses would be interested in a date. Of course we knew they wanted only one thing, so we agreed and told them two nurses would be waiting at the gates for them. Later, we watched them walking back and forth as we giggled to each other. None of us were going to go down there . . .”Isa says.
Traditional regulations and strict codes at the hospital often meant trouble for nurses who stepped over the line. Elsie reﬂects on one case: “There was one nurse who came in wearing lipstick . . . One of the sisters noticed it and said to her, ‘nurse, go and get me a face cloth,’ and she did. When she returned with the cloth, the sister barked ‘now go and wipe that lipstick off now’.”
For the nurses, the usual day at the hospital would entail ﬁlling the sterilising boilers – which had a tendency to overﬂow if not monitored, sharpening needles for syringes, attending to patients as well as the unpopular task of scrubbing bed pans.
For socialising, they were allowed a weekly “picture pass” to go to the theatre and a monthly “dance pass” for dances.
They were on a salary of £33 ($66) a year.
Some of the most horriﬁc wounds they dressed were those of American servicemen during World War 2, who were shipped back from the Paciﬁc war.
“The Americans also used to ring us up and ask who were available for dates.
“One of the girls would yell ‘we’ve got two boys on the phone, anyone willing?’,” Isa says.
Career-wise, marriage was out of the question.
“Once you were married, your nursing life was over. We never entertained the thought of it,” Elsie adds.
To become a registered nurse, training would cover maternity, tuberculosis and a six-week stint at Napier Hospital for experience in dressing ear, eye, nose and throat injuries.
Elsie eventually advanced through the grades before retiring in 1978. Still. there is nothing more enjoyable for her than to be with her old friends and have a nice that.
“And we hope to do so for many years to come. Several died last year, so it’s very worthwhile that we can get together and keep up friendships,” Elsie says.
Photo captions –
LEFT: The oldest of the group of nurses who trained at the then Hastings Memorial Hospital from 1939-1942, are, front, from left: Pearl Oulaghan, Elsie Leipst, Marie Burrell and Margaret Lusher – at their three-monthly gathering at the J H Mason Village Community Hall, Havelock North.
ELSIE LEIPST, of Havelock North, left, and Isa Jennings, of Hastings, two of the group of nurses who trained in Hastings from 1939-1942.