55-year nursing career ends

By Brendon McMahon

A distinguished 55-year nursing career has drawn to a close with the retirement of Hokitika woman Jeanette Lee.
The girl from Takutai, who completed her schooling at St Mary’s High School, in Hokitika, always knew she wanted to be a nurse.
“I enjoyed every minute of it — and wonderful staff throughout,” Mrs Lee told the Guardian.
She joked that the nuns were ready to see her go when she departed school at the age of 15 to begin as a nurse-aide at the former Westland Hospital.
At the end of the 1950s Jeanette (nee Muir), was “too young” to begin formally and so waited a year to start her formal three year training at the age of 16, at Hokitika.
“Westland Hospital used to be an A-grade training school — mainly specialising in orthopaedics,” Mrs Lee said.
Under the leadership of then hospital superintendent and renowned orthopaedic specialist, Lindsay Black, the young Jeanette Muir graduated and went on to become charge nurse — a position of immense responsibility for every aspect of hospital administration, including nurse training.
It was one step in a career which, following the gradual closure of Westland Hospital in the 1980s and finally in the early 1990s, has included stints as a staff nurse at Seaview Hospital, and until last month, at the Kahurangi dementia unit at Grey Base Hospital.
But many older residents will remember Mrs Lee as the face of the old hospital ambulance service through the 1960s and 1970s.
The public ambulance service then was hospital-based, with local taxi operators rostered on as drivers and an ‘on call’ hospital nurse as volunteer ambulance officer.
Mrs Lee would go at all hours on a gruelling 5-7-hour journey to South Westland to attend accidents or to transfer patients from as far as Haast back to Hokitika with just “the basics,” and sometimes only the driver to rely on for back-up.
“In some incidences I’d be the sole person in the back … it was a very responsible job. I used to have to get dressed and wait at the letterbox and the ambulance would come screaming up Weld Street, and away I’d go.”
When Westland Hospital was wound down Mrs Lee transferred down the road to the Seaview Psychiatric Hospital, where she re-orientated herself to a new style of nursing as a staff nurse.
There she remained until Seaview, too, was closed down, finally in 2007.
By then a seasoned nurse of nearly 50 years of change in the New Zealand health system, was not daunted.
“I thought, I may as well carry on.”
And she did, as a staff nurse at the Kahurangi unit in Greymouth — until her decision to retire at an age well past ‘normal,’ last month.
“People said, ‘why did you finish so early?’ ” Mrs Lee joked.