Dames in White Cotton


I’m sitting in the TV room of Wellington Hospital’s Cardiac Unit doing a crossword when an alarm goes off.

This is far from unusual. Every hour of every day in this unit there are beeps and bops and dings – Heart-rate monitors, drip bags running low, someone needing assistance.

But this alarm is a bit more urgent – not so different as to be concerning to patients, but unmistakeable if you know what to listen out for.

It doesn’t sound good.

Within seconds I hear fast footsteps and three nurses run past my door, heading for one of the other wings, a few seconds after that there is the rumble of heavy, trolley-based equipment being rolled in the same direction.

It REALLY doesn’t sound good.

A few minutes pass with no further urgent noises and one of the nurses I saw running past walks back to her station past me.

She smiles, but it’s one of those looks where the mouth smiles, though the eyes tell a different, far more concerned, story.

I don’t envy the staff here.

They are wonderful, funny, talented, smart, beautiful, professional and capable, but the job they do is not one I think I could do myself.

They are literally dealing with life and death and in cardiology the difference between those two extremes can be a single heartbeat.

“The average age of nurses in New Zealand is 52” I am told by one of my caregivers as we chat on the way to a scan.

Growing up in Napier I can believe that, as you invariably knew someone whose mum was a nurse and in somewhere like Hawke’s Bay, where nursing jobs seem more secure / long-term, the nurses could mostly be described as “Mum age”.

At any hospital you go to, you become accustomed to the Junior Doctors / Registrars / House Surgeons being all about the same age as Doogie Howser (some of them are too young to get the reference).

But the first thing I noticed when I arrived in Wellington Hospital was that the nurses all seemed so young – The average age in the cardiology ward here would be around 25-30 (my initial estimation was closer to 18).

This is no indictment on their level of skill or professionalism, of course, merely an observation of their youth.

It is also a indication to the depth of their character, given the serious nature of their job and the physical, psychological and emotional toll it must take on those so young.

So I asked some of these young nurses what drew them to the profession:

Theresa* (Not her real name) is 23 and has been qualified nurse for a little over two years.

Her father had a history of heart problems and succumbed to heart disease when Theresa was 15.

Having watched her dad go through these issues wasn’t the sole catalyst in her becoming a nurse, but she says it certainly helps her empathise with the patients she treats and their families.

She tells me she has had only one patient exhibiting the exact same symptoms as her father and they passed away on the 8th anniversary of his death.

“That was obviously hard, but if you let these sort of things get to you too much, this isn’t a job you should be in.”

Theresa says she loves helping people and the things she has gone through in her personal life creates an empathy with those she looks after.

The nature of her work and her family’s experiences have certainly changed her perspective on life – She no longer “sweats the small stuff”.

In 2010 Florence* (Not her real name either) was studying biomedical science at university, but started to get the impression that while this was something she really wanted to do, like so many other tertiary students, actual career options on completion of her degree were rapidly drying up.

So, in the space of a week before Christmas, she applied to take up nursing training because it combined two things she loved doing – interacting with people and her interest in biomedical science.

She passed, but while there were plenty of newly qualified nurses and plenty of positions, there wasn’t the funding within the health system to place all graduates – 50% of her qualifying class got jobs straight away.

She now works on-call across a range of wards – Cardiology, Medical, Oncology, Orthopaedics and Urology and Surgical disciplines, waiting for her ideal permanent position to come up.

“I know I’m going to have an awesome career, I just don’t know what I’ll end up as”

And when Florence says this, like all her colleagues I talked to, she radiates a certainty, a determination and a passion for their work that makes you certain they will do wonderful things and those they look after will have the best possible care, because they care so much about what they do.

I read a newspaper article the other day about New Zealand’s ever-developing cult of “#Celebrity” (yes, the headline included its own hashtag) – Those half-pie, “reality” TV, 15-minutes-too-many-of-fame “stars” famous for, well, nothing really.

I thought “We MUST be able to do better than this!”

There are people out there doing FAR more for others, who are FAR more deserving of attention and praise than those being deified as a by-product of scripted reality, product placement and creative editing”.

There is already a song dedicated to “(K)Nights in White Satin.”

It’s time we had more praise for our “Dames in White Cotton”!

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