“I’m going to be a nurse” had always been my answer to that perennial childhood question. It seemed to satisfy the questioner and happily deflected any further enquiry. When I was sixteen, five sturdy school friends organised a week’s trip, to a hut on the edge of Diamond Lake in Paradise Valley, near Glenorchy. To get there involved a bus trip from Dunedin to Queenstown, the Earnslaw Steamer to Glenorchy, a hitched ride to Paradise, then a walk. All this involved money, and I didn’t have any.
I needed a job for the preceding two weeks, preferably with lots of overtime. Just such a job appeared at Seacliff Mental Hospital, so I swapped my gym frock for a rigidly starched pink uniform, crowned by a board-stiff white cap and ventured into the Admissions Ward.
At 7am each day the six duty nurses stood around the oak desk in Sister’s office and read THE REPORT. Among other helpful nursing tips it offered a assessment of the mental condition of New Admissions. These individuals were invariably described as “pleasant and cooperative” or “sullen and resentful.” Most of the nurses would also fit the latter category.
I was simply bewildered. However, thoughts of Paradise-to-come rendered me stoical. When desperate, I sought refuge, not in God, but in the linen cupboard. The neat heaped sheet stacks, and regular reams of towels restored some hope of an ordered universe. The smell of ironed linen served a function similar to incense.
Hierarchies were extremely important. I was too junior to be permitted to speak to anyone other than my fellow nurses. Hence the memorable Day Room day, when my conversation went “Excuse me Sister, could you please ask Sub Matron X to ask Matron Y to tell Dr B that he has put his pipe in his pocket while it is still alight and his trousers are burning.”
On looking round that Dayroom it was anyone’s guess who would pass the Sanity Inspector.
My observations of Drs A, B, and C were rather concerning. When I was told to look after a coterie of wakening anaesthetised patients who had just had ECT, I asked what I was to look for and what action to take. The enquiry was met with derisive dismissal. Patients were treated in the same manner, reasonable requests for a consultation were imperiously denied. Some patients had had no contact with medical staff for weeks or months. I watched these interchanges with concern, apprehension and helplessness. Then the thought appeared — I could do better than this!
After more than forty years of medical practice, I hope I have.
I have certainly tried.
Rae Varcoe did not become a psychiatrist, but had a long career as a leukaemia and lymphoma physician at Auckland Hospital. She has also been a book reviewer, has Victoria University M.A, in Creative Writing and has published a poetry collection (Tributary, VUP, 2007).
Also on Corpus by Rae Varcoe: I give you my guessing tubes
And for more on Rae’s work, read Poetry=Medicine?