Modern matron

00:14, Aug 02 2014

Sue Allen still remembers one of her very first shifts working at Wairau Hospital.

It was 1977 and she was 17-years-old. Nurses wore cotton dresses, capes and hats, had their own stocking allowance and lived under the hierarchy of the fearsome matron.

Thirty-seven years on, Sue has become Nelson Marlborough District Health Board's  Associate Director of Nursing and Operations Manager, based in the hospital she has grown up in.

The world of nursing had changed from practical task-orientated work to nurses loaded with theoretical knowledge. 

Sue was brought up on a dairy farm in Koromiko and initially saw agriculture as her calling but swiftly moved onto nursing after her two brothers politely nudged her out of the way.

At 17 she became an enrolled nurse at Wairau Hospital. One of her earliest memories on the ward is still etched in her memory.


''I dropped a whole tray of mercury glass thermometers. I smashed the whole lot and burst into tears. I had to clear everything up with my own hands. These were the days before spill kits. It was a hard school back then.''

Sue said it was a hierarchical system where doctors and matrons ruled the roost.

Doctors prescribed the treatment and nurses were deemed not important enough to be involved on ward rounds. 

''The matrons were usually maidens who made a career out of nursing, now we call it a profession.

''I remember being hauled over the coals because I laughed with a patient. I continued to laugh with patients, I just checked down the corridor before I did it again.''

Matrons were perfectionists who ensured nurse dress hems were below the knee and there were no ladders in their stockings.

The monotonous task of perfecting the hospital bed corner drew daily inspections and matrons bounced pennies off beds to ensure the linen was ship shape.

''I had perfected hospital bed corners to my children's despise many years later when they tried to kick the bed clothes off,'' she laughs.

Sue stayed in the on-site nurses' home and had a curfew of 10pm on week nights and 11pm on weekends. Nurses worked 10 days in a row and got four days off. 

Her very first pay packet was $120 for a fortnight - she's kept the pay docket as a memento. Romance on wards was commonplace. 

''A lot of nurses met their partners on wards. In 1978 it was the norm for nurses to go out with patients. I know couples that are still together. Of course it would be deeply inappropriate nowadays.''

Sue took seven years out in 1988 to raise her family of four and re-trained as a registered nurse in 1995 while working as a casual nurse in the hospital. 

''I remember saying to my husband 'I can't believe we are allowed to wear a wristwatch'. The changes were unbelievable. There were no glass IV bottles, you didn't have to put your hands in searing hot water to sterilise instruments, everything was automated.''

After working in the surgical ward and eight years in the Intensive Care Unit, Sue was appointed as the district-wide nurse educator. 

She went on to become charge nurse manager in 2008 and was involved in the redevelopment of Wairau Hospital before becoming assistant director of nursing for the board last year.

She is ecited or changes ahead, including plans for more nurses to move into primary care.

The Marlborough Express