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The end of a 50 year nursing career

Hamilton East Medical Centre nurse Carolyn Irving hung up her nursing uniform in January 2016, 50 years after first putting it on. 

The Waikato born and bred girl first donned the uniform on 24 January 1966 as a 17 year old to begin her nurse training.  She was the youngest of eight in a farming family, and while her older sister was a nurse, Carolyn says that did not influence her career choice.

"I desperately wanted to be a police woman, but I missed out because I was too short by one inch.  It was gut wrenching.  My professional course at Te Awamutu College restricted me to being either a nurse or a teacher.  My closest college friends decided to do nursing, so I joined them," says Carolyn. 

"Sometimes it is like being a detective here anyway, trying to decipher where people are, what they are doing, and tracking people down," she laughs.

Carolyn completed six-week blocks of tutorials and then straight onto hospital ward work, putting into practice what she had learnt.

"It was tough being a nurse in those times.  We were expected to work a five-day, 40 hour week after what seemed like little training.  Sometimes you had a nice ward sister (tutor), but a lot of them were anything but nice.   I remember one ward rotation where I was responsible for 16 elderly patients.  I was expected to get them up, fed breakfast, showered, beds made, all by lunch time.  The preceptor (mentor) is much more supportive now."

Carolyn graduated in 1969 and spent another few years working at the hospital.  "A room of  male patients became very hungry one night.  So here I was making toast and lemonade for them.  But how do you stop the smell of toast drifting down the corridor?  I really got it from my ward sister the next day.  She was so mad," laughs Carolyn.  "I got letters from those guys saying that was the best meal that they had.  They felt really sorry for me getting absolutely blasted."

She then left the workforce in 1971 to start a family, returning as a practice nurse at Te Waiora Health Centre (now known as Glenview Medical Centre) in 1985. 

"I loved my time in antenatal/maternity nursing.  I enjoyed seeing the bonding between new mothers and their babies.  But this service ended as midwives now offered it."

Most of her time as a practice nurse was spent alongside GP Mark Vaughan.

"It was a really great doctor/nurse relationship because we really got to know the patients.  We were together for three and a half years when Mark said he was moving to the new Hamilton East Medical Centre.  I joked that if you move, then I am coming with you.  And now here we are, 28 years later," she says.  

"The nursing model was different here; we worked as a group with different nurses and GPs.  It was not a one to one relationship with the GP, which was a cultural shock for me."   

Dr Mark says Carolyn was highly supportive and courteously guided him through new procedures when he first started.

"I was rather young, naïve, and lacking in experience after just completing my registrar training in Tauranga.  She diplomatically suggested options rather than instructing me about wound dressings and treatment procedures, without making me feel completely ignorant, even though at times I felt like I was extremely lacking in knowledge.  Primary health care has changed immeasurably over Carolyn's career but she has adapted to the many new innovations extremely well."

"My earliest memories are that Carolyn was consistently caring, supportive and genuinely interested in the welfare of patients. During my initial years in Hamilton, I was involved in GP obstetrics. Carolyn already new most of the expectant mothers and she offered great support to the maternity patients at their antenatal visits, while delighting in seeing them with the infants at the postnatal visits. She gently gave out good advice based on years of sound experience and accumulated skills. She has been a wonderful role model for younger nurses," he adds.

Carolyn then took up other specialties at the practice.  "I became involved in the minor surgery area with GP Bert Rauber," she says.  "There is never a shortage of skin lesion removal because of our love of the sun.  I am also involved in our travel clinics; dealing with travel patients and immunisations. I support well people to try and keep them well while they are away." 

"Mark is my rock, he is very caring and compassionate.  A very professional man and doctor.  Bert has amazing skills and is very clever with his surgery.  It's been a privilege to work with both of them."  

Looking back at her years as a nurse, Carolyn says there is a lot of autonomy now. "It is great to see nurse-led clinics as common practise.  Some nurses previously felt like hand maidens, completing mundane tasks like filing and not having the opportunity to make use of our expertise.  We are more empowered now.  GPs appreciate this and are more open to nurses taking the lead."   

There are greater training opportunities now.  "There were times when I would have liked to have done more courses, but we had to pay for these ourselves.  One course I was interested in cost $4,000.  How was I going to pay that with a young family?  It was also difficult to replace a nurse who was on study leave."

"There is more funding and scholarships available now.  I encourage nurses to make the most of these opportunities.  Keep upskilling yourself.  Do not take it for granted.  It is encouraging to see the new generation of nurses coming through, and it is heartening to know I am leaving the profession in good hands." 

Carolyn now plans to spend more time with her family. "I will probably drive my husband crazy.  I enjoy gardening, sewing and playing tennis, which has been a passion since primary school. My daughter and her family have returned from the United States to live in New Zealand.  So I will be spending more time with them as well as my other daughter's children and my oldest son's child.  The six grandchildren will keep me busy."

"Everyone, past and present, has had an influence on me.  Hamilton East Medical Centre has been a wonderful place to work and I'm going to miss the team greatly." 

Photo: Hamilton East Medical Centre nurse Carolyn Irving looks at a photo of her former self starting as a new nurse 50 years ago. 

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