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Nursing in New Zealand: History and Reminiscences

Chapter XII. — Hospital Investigations and Enquiries

page 74

Chapter XII.
Hospital Investigations and Enquiries.

Among my duties as Assistant Inspector of Hospitals, was to have knowledge of the suitability and otherwise, of aspirants for positions as matrons of hospitals. The only way I could gain this knowledge was in my visits of inspection, and sometimes of course, it was not very deep.

The Government, as it paid a large part of the cost of hospitals by its subsidies had a right to object to unsuitable appointments and could hold up an appointment for three weeks, in order to give the boards time for consideration, but they were very jealous of any interference. It is only in later years that legislation by hospital Acts, and by the amended Nurses' Registration Act, has given power to the Health Department to absolutely veto the appointment of a medical superintendent or matron. Needless to say, their power is carefully exercised; but every appointment is now submitted without question, while in earlier times this was not the case.

I remember when a certain Hospital Board appointed a matron whom the Department considered unsuitable. I was sent up by Dr. Valintine to give the members of the board the reason for the department's disapproval of the appointment. It was not altogether an agreeable errand, for my appearance seemed to be regarded as interference with the privileges of the board, and to be resented page 75 by the majority of the members. They determined to have their own way, in spite of the fact that the Minister withheld approval, with the result that finally the matron had to be dismissed.

Another instance occurred when a certain hospital appointed a matron, not a New Zealand nurse, of whom it happened I knew something, and considered would not be suitable. At that time the department had not the power of stopping the appointment and we could not interfere, but as I expected, I was quickly called upon to go and investigate, and had to conduct an inquiry into this lady's dismissal of a nurse who was half through her training.

I considered the dismissal quite unjustified, and gave the matron a way of climbing down from the position she had taken up without loss of dignity. However, this was refused and another enquiry was held by my chief, who, I grieve to say, did not uphold me in the matter, and I was directed to find a place in another hospital for the dismissed nurse to finish her training. This I did, and the girl completed her course to the satisfaction of the new matron.

A short time later, during this matron's career, a complaint made by the father of a pupil nurse of the treatment of his daughter led to a Magisterial Commission of Enquiry being set up, and again I had to be present. For days in court, the enquiry went on, I remember the terrible heat! Dr. Valintine later came too. Into this enquiry the Medical Superintendent also came, and the issue seemed to lie between him and the matron, and at the end the Magistrate gave his verdict in favour of the matron. The Medical Superintendent resigned, I think. At this distance of time I cannot quite remember, but on page 76 the department files there is a very interesting record of the whole matter. The sequel is interesting and entirely vindicates my first report and opinion of the matron, whose rather stormy career of two years, during which one de partmental enquiry and two Royal Commissions of En quiry were held, was terminated abruptly. I received a telegram from the chairman asking me to “send a macron at once to—Hospital, Miss—dismissed.”

I sent Miss Bicknell, my assistant, temporarily. She was there for six weeks, and reported the utmost mismanagement and neglect on the part of the matron, who was a lady who appeared to have been given a fairly free hand until a new chairman of the board was elected.

This period of unrest in a hospital which is a training school for nurses is, of course, very bad for the student nurses, and the results in these two cases show the advantage to a hospital board in the selection of a matron, of advice from someone who may have more knowledge of applicants and their capabilities, than can possibly be learnt from testimonials.

Among other investigations which came in the course of my duties, was one into the nursing managements at the Wellington Hospital. There had been letters of complaint to the Evening Post of work which pupil nurses were expected to do and which were not considered suitable for young girls. I was commissioned by Dr. Valintine to conduct an enquiry, and this I did by interviewing sisters and pupil nurses in the matron's office, but not in her presence. I felt that they would not speak freely except to me alone. This excited indignation in the hospital authorities and they talked of a “Star Chamber Enquiry.” However, when my report, for which I was warmly page 77 commended by the Minister of Health, was made, they calmed down and recognised that I had been quite fair and had given them some valuable advice. I had found that unknown to the authorities, some of the young nurses had, under a sister not trained in New Zealand, been called upon to carry out some of the duties which really were the responsibility of the junior resident medical officers, or of a trained wardsman. Young medical officers are often not averse to passing on some of their less interesting duties to anyone who will undertake them!

Another enquiry I had in Dunedin was also in connection with the complaints in the newspapers of the work of the nurses in hospital and of their treatment. I was engaged in this enquiry for several days, and found that much of the work of the junior nurses which was complained of was imposed by some of the sisters without the knowledge of the matron. Miss Fraser, the matron, was so distressed by the complaints and with a cruel insinuation that leave to visit dying relatives was denied to the nurses, that she resigned, although my report exonerated her entirely, and showed that the allegations against her were absolutely denied by the nurses, and that they were almost without exception, loyal to her and grieved at the discredit brought upon their training school.

The whole trouble had been brought about by a letter to a newspaper and by the action of a junior resident officer in the absence of the Medical Superintendent in allowing a reporter to go to a ward, and interview a sister there who made further complaints. She was suspended from duty pending enquiries by the board. I am pleased to record that after this lesson the sister proved a good nurse and did good service during the war.

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The resignation of the matron was deeply deplored by both the board and the staff, she was asked to reconsider it. However, she was too deeply hurt and left the hospital three months later, being given a great send off, presentations by the citizens of Dunedin as well as by the Hospital Board and staff, past and present. A medal to commemorate her is presented by the board to special student nurses, called the Fraser Medal.

Many other instances I could quote of either being requested by Hospital Boards to make investigations or being sent by the Department to enquire into troubles.