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Nursing in New Zealand: History and Reminiscences

Chapter XXXIV. — I go to Port Said

page 166

Chapter XXXIV.
I go to Port Said.

I was somewhat uncertain as to my future movements after my nurses were all stationed at the various hospitals in Egypt. I received no instructions from headquarters either in New Zealand or in England, but General Ford informed me that another contingent of nurses was to arrive shortly and desired that I should wait to receive them. This I was quite ready to do, though as I was receiving no allowance for living expenses, it was a little difficult for me. However, I had some money in hand, so trusted that it would be all right. Colonel Holmes, who was in charge of medical services, also gave me information about nurses coming, and that No. 1 Stationary Hospital was to arrive on the hospital ship Maheno, at Port Said.

We went to Port Said to see a place that had been offered to New Zealand. It was a Mission School; there was one large school-room which we considered could be used as a ward, but the majority of the patients would have to be provided for in tents on the sand.

The necessary offices, and the accommodation for the medical officers would take all the available space in the building. It was at first intended to take only convalescent cases and six of our second contingent of nurses under Miss Cameron, with orderlies, were to staff it. I had to find a place for the nurses and we found a house conveniently near, which I arranged with the owners to rent. It page 167 was quite amusing the taking of the inventory, the lady owner could not speak English, so my rather meagre knowledge of French came in quite well, and we got the business satisfactorily done.

While I was waiting there, Colonel McGavin and other medical officers of No. 1 Stationary arrived, also a number of wounded were sent and accommodated in the hospital, which, by this time was ready to receive them. The nurses had not yet arrived, and I went on duty one day assisting Colonel McGavin with dressings; quite a change for me after my being so long out of active nursing work. I hope I was not altogether too stupid! but I was greatly relieved that next day Miss Cameron and some of the 30 nurses despatched with her, arrived. They had just been sent to Alexandria and stationed at the various hospitals where I had already seen Miss Cameron, when I went there from Cairo. Miss Michel was in charge of No. 21st. General Hospital, and was very sorry to part with Miss Cameron and the six nurses who were to go to Port Said.

They had just got the hospital into nice working order, when a sudden influx of patients occurred. A ship-load of sick and wounded arrived at Port Said direct from Gallipoli, and for a few days the staff had to work night and day. Conditions, also working on the sands of the desert in hospital tents, large and well equipped as they were, made it more difficult for the small staff. Fortunately, a number of Canadian nurses arrived in Egypt at this time, and these were sent to reinforce our staff. While there, an unfortunate accident happened to one of these nurses. A primus stove which was being used for sterilizing instruments, exploded and she was rather severely burnt about the face. Fortunately, however, help was at once available and she recovered well.

page 168

At this time, the hospital ship arrived with a large number of passenger nurses, fifty, as well as the staff of the ship. Miss Brooke was in charge of the hospital staff, and of the passenger nurses, Sister Ida Willis was in charge; half of the number had been landed at Suez, and sent on to Alexandria, but with the remainder No. 1 Stationary was well staffed.

I went on board to meet the nurses and, of course, met the Commanding Officer; I. was surprised to be asked regarding the status of the nursing service, and informed him that the Minister of Defence had announced that the nurses were to rank as officers. This seemed greatly to annoy the Colonel and his Adjutant, and they actually refused to believe me. I had nothing with me to confirm my statement and it was only later that I found out the cause of their incredulity. Much to my indignation, I found that the passenger nurses had been treated with the greatest lack of consideration and courtesy, so much so, that they were expected to wait entirely upon themselves, even to getting their meals from the galley, cleaning their bathrooms, etc. Miss Willis had refused to go on under these conditions and threatened to land at Adelaide and report to headquarters. The Colonel then allotted stewards to them, and matters were better, but of course, it was impossible to forget their first treatment. Long after I returned to New Zealand, the Colonel reopened the question and I was able, by reference to the Minister of Defence himself, to convince him that nurses were regarded as officers.

This, of course, was a very disagreeable incident, but in the stress of real work, was soon, if not forgotten, at least put aside. More than one of the New Zealand medicos, when dressed up as soldiers, ignored the claims of the page 169 nurses, and refused to associate with them on the terms of equality to which their professional, as well as social status, entitled them. It seemed a case of being afraid to lower their great dignity. So different our sisters found the manner in which the Imperial Officers behaved; it was a pity in many ways that our nurses did not wear the badges of rank, as did the Canadians, and later on the Australians. The American nurses when they first came into the War, had the same disability, but after the War was over, they were granted military rank.

While on this subject, I may as well give an account of a conference of medical officers in New Zealand called by the late General Henderson, the D.G.M.S. As military hospital concerns were to be discussed, I was called upon to attend and one of the matters brought up was the status of the nurses in the N.Z. Army. It had already been put up in orders both in England and New Zealand, and they were to rank as officers, and were entitled to the salute. They were to rank immediately after the medical officers and above the non-commissioned officers, and were entered as officers in the Army list. This was satisfactory as far as it went, but was constantly overlooked or denied and was the cause often of difficulty to the sisters. I spoke at this conference, pointing out the difficulties and that the Australian nurses and the Canadians wore their stars. A sub-committee was then appointed to consider the question and report, the members being Col. Wylie, Col. Valintine, myself and another doctor. This committee approved of the badges of rank being worn and recommended that the Matron-in-Chief should rank as Colonel, the principal matrons as Majors, the matrons as Captains, the sisters as Lieutenants, and should wear the appropriate badges. This, of course, was very satisfactory to me, but what became of the recommendation I do not know. The page 170 War was over and, as far as I know, nothing further was done. Probably the report is somewhere in a pigeon-hole. If ever Army nurses are needed for active service again, which God forbid, it should be dug out.

Well this has been a long digression. The Port Said Hospital was now fully staffed, some of the nurses were sent to the Egyptian Government Hospital at Port Said. Miss Stubbs was one of these; I went one day to see her. The regular staff there was carrying on; they were nuns, and of course, a contrast to our sisters. A number of New Zealand men were there.

A sad accident happened at Port Said at the Nurses' Home. Sister Jeffery lost her eye. She was sitting on a stairway leading to the front door, when another nurse opened a window above, the corner of which struck her eye.

Whilst being on the canal, it was interesting to see the evidences of the fight there. The trenches and dug-outs were still to be seen. There were camps in various places of Indian soldiers mostly. Staying in Port Said one is awakened at daybreak by the tramp of horse and rattle of waggons passing down the main street, and one could see from the balcony off our room long lines of troops bringing their horses up from their morning dip in the sea.