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Nursing in New Zealand: History and Reminiscences

Chapter IX. — St. Helens Hospitals and Other Maternity Hospitals

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Chapter IX.
St. Helens Hospitals and Other Maternity Hospitals.

I have mentioned that the St. Helens Hospitals were specially under my charge; this work I found very interesting and was on the best of terms with the matrons who always welcomed a visit from me. There were only three opened when I took office, one in Wellington, one in Dunedin and one in Auckland.

The Right Honourable Mr. Seddon, the founder of the institutions, was on his way from Sydney to prepare the opening ceremony of the Auckland one, when he died. All these institutions were opened in existing buildings, private houses adapted to the work. This, as I have said before, is never satisfactory.

The Wellington one was long since abandoned, and a new building erected. Dunedin St. Helens still exists in the old building, a good deal altered, but a large maternity hospital is now to be built there in connection with the Medical School.

In Auckland, the old hospital is now the Nurses' Home, and a new hospital was erected about ten years ago. One of my first duties in connection with the St. Helens was the furnishing and opening of the Christchurch one. Here a building had been purchased, that had been a small hotel, at the corner of Durham Street. Alterations to adapt it as a hospital were already in hand, and, regret it as I did, there was nothing more to be done. The idea at that time was to treat these places more as maternity homes than as page 57 actual hospitals, and to have equipment that would not be so elaborate that nurses working outside afterwards would miss it and would be unable to adapt themselves to poor homes with little to work upon. That was well, as far as it went, but the fact that the treatment of numbers needs equipment, and aseptic precautions, that may not be quite so necessary in a place where only one confinement is likely to take place at long intervals, was rather lost sight of. It was only after considerable time that more up-to-date methods were adopted in these institutions and that they were treated as hospitals.

While the Christchurch place was being altered the matron, who had already been appointed and who, curiously enough was the very Edinburgh nurse I had met and been introduced to at the Infimary during my trip abroad in 1904, Miss Helen Inglis, came to help me get the furnishings done. She lived in an old cottage beside the building, which was used afterwards for servants' quarters, until it had to be demolished. We had quite a pleasant time together; were careful and economical in our purchasings, but got everything necessary for the comfort of the patients, and as far as possible for the nurses. There was little chance of spending much for the nurses, as the quarters at that time were by no means palatial. The trainees were lodged in cubicles in a large room, divided up with little room for furniture—arrangements are much better now, and quite a comfortable nurses' home is provided. It was always my desire to have an entirely new hospital and, in fact, a site was acquired and a plan made which was to have been carried out, when the Great War broke out and of course, there was no money for such work.

For some time the four St. Helens were the only State maternity hospitals and training schools for midwives, page 58 though there was the Alexandra Home in Wellington, a sort of refuge and reformatory for single girls. A new building was erected a few years ago for the Alexandra Home, and it is now very satisfactory, and trains a number of maternity nurses. The Salvation Army also had homes for single girls. The St. Helens Hospitals were reserved for married women. In Dunedin in 1908, there was also established a maternity hospital for the medical students who were then debarred from attending cases at St. Helens hospitals, and who had depended for their instruction on cases among the poor outside. This training was of course, terribly inadequate and having the small hospital with a qualified matron, to assist in teaching them, their practical work was a great step forward, and it was owing to the late Dr. Batchelor's efforts. Even this, however, was not sufficient and later students were allowed to have some cases in St. Helens Hospitals. This was strenuously opposed by those who upheld Mr. Seddon in his decision that these married women were not to be attended by students. However, it was arranged that the women were to be asked if they agreed to a student attending them, and if any woman objected she would have a nurse only. As a matter of fact, very few made any objection and the matron and nurses always carefully gave these senior students the title of doctor.

When the new hospital of forty or fifty beds is built, it is probable that this one, the Batchelor Hospital, and perhaps St. Helens also, will be closed.

The next maternity hospital to be opened was in Gisborne when a commitee of ladies, headed by Mrs. Townley, with the approval of the Government, established the Townley Maternity Hospital of six beds. This was later on handed over to the Health Department and was page 59 then called the Townley St. Helens Hospital. It is an inconvenient old building, though improved as far as possible, but some good work has been done there and some excellent nurses trained.

The sixth St. Helens Hospital was opened after the war, in Invercargill. A fine old home standing in extensive grounds, was offered by its owner as a gift. It was quite I thought, the best of any of the old buildings, and could be adapted very satisfactorily for about ten patients. So plans were made for certain additions, and when ready, Miss Stubbs, an ex-army sister, appointed matron, and went down with me to see about the furnishings. As funds amounting to £1,000 had been subscribed by the Invercargill people, I thought it was only fair to make our purchases there, and this we did, dividing our patronage between members of the leading tradespeople, who took the greatest interest in helping us, and giving good prices from our point of view.

The question of appointing a medical officer had to be postponed. Owing to the war, there were not many men available, and there was some opposition on the part of those in Invercargill to having a St. Helens Hospital there at all.

This had been the case in other centres, but had been overcome after the medical men realised that the St. Helens Hospitals were more likely to relieve them of their own poorer cases. It was therefore necessary for the matron to carry on without a medical officer, but to send for one of the doctors when any abnormal case occurred. This Miss Stubbs did very successfully until after the war was over, when a medical officer was appointed.

During the early years of my office, it was one of my duties to recommend the appointments of the medical page 60 officer for St. Helens. At the time of my arrival, the three established hospitals had their medical officers, and two of these, Dr. Emily Seideberg at Dunedin, and Dr. Tracy-Inglis of Auckland, are still in charge. It is only a part-time, and non-resident office. The matron and her staff carry on all normal confinements, and only send for the medical officer if necessary. They also deliver lectures to the nurses preparing them for the State examinations, apart from that, they, have no share in the management of the hospitals, but are, of course, consulted frequently and visit regularly.

A fourth medical officer had been appointed for Christ-church, Dr. Alice Moorehouse, who carried on until her marriage, and then I was asked to make a recommendation for her successor. We preferred, if possible, to have a woman doctor, but on account of his outstanding ability, recommended Dr. William Irving, a well known and highly esteemed doctor, and a woman was added to the staff as assistant. Dr. Irving was beloved by the patients and the staff, and undoubtedly contributed very largely to the success of Christchurch St. Helens. After he gave up the charge of St. Helens, owing to strain of other work, he remained as consultant. There have, however, been more changes of staff, both nursing and medical, at Christchurch St. Helens than at any of the other St. Helens.

At Wellington, I had to undertake a delicate task; the department decided to place a woman doctor in charge, and I had to interview the medical officer, and gently intimate to him the proposed change. Doctor Agnes Bennett was appointed, and has been in charge ever since, with intervals when she was away on active service in Serbia during the war, and during visits abroad, when different doctors were temporarily appointed. Always, however, Dr. Bennett has been welcomed warmly on her return.

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There was still another State maternity hospital to be established; after the war, a building at Wanganui had been offered to the Defence Department as a convalescent Home for soldiers. In my capacity of Matron-in-chief, I had to see to the establishment of this place, and to select a matron and staff. Miss Bird, of Wanganui, was the first matron. It was a private home, situated in a large garden with a fruit orchard. It lent itself well to the purpose of a convalescent home. After it was no longer needed for that purpose, its owner, Mr. Hope-Gibbons, offered it to the Health Department for a maternity hospital, and it was accordingly altered and added to, and has been a very useful little hospital of twelve beds.

It was decided after this, that the Government would not establish any more maternity hospitals. The policy of Dr. Valintine was for the hospital boards to provide accommodation for all classes of cases, and they were urged to build maternity annexes, or separate hospitals to be run in connection with their general hospitals—a great many have done this, and there is fair provision, almost all over the Dominion, for those who cannot afford private fees.

The Wairau Maternity Hospital, the McHardy Home, Napier (which was badly damaged during the earthquake in 1931), are examples of places like the first St. Helens Hospitals, being converted from private houses into hospitals. Some of the smaller country hospitals, such as Mangonui in the Bay of Islands, were more used as maternity hospitals than general.

At Hastings, a memorial hospital was established to the soldiers who fell in the war. It is mainly for maternity cases, with a few beds for emergency cases of accident or illness while waiting to be sent to the Napier Hospital.

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In the North Canterbury districts there are twelve cottage hospitals which are mainly maternity hospitals, though a few medical and surgical cases are taken.

At one time these hospitals were allowed to train mid-wives, but this was not satisfactory and if allowed to train at all, it is only maternity nurses. At the present time, it is only the principal St. Helens hospitals that can train midwives. The regulations under the Nurses' and Mid-wives' Registration Act have been altered from time to time and are too complicated to go into here. Much indignation was expressed by hospital boards at the restrictions placed upon them, but the Registration Board has been firm, and determined to uphold a good standard for midwives as well as a fair one for maternity nurses, who will not have the same responsibility.—Midwives are trained to be able to assume full charge of a confinement in which there are no complications or abnormal conditions and are required only to send for a medical practitioner when needed. Maternity nurses are not allowed to work except under a medical practitioner.

As the standard set here improved, difficulties arose over the registration of overseas midwives, and it was found that it would not be just to our own to grant registration even to holders of the C.M.B. certificate. We used to allow some of these to make up the time in one of our own hospitals and sit for the State examination. (At the present time negotiations regarding reciprocity with the Central Midwives' Board are going on). Quite a number of women could not be registered at all, and I remember an amusing incident when a certain woman who had been refused made use of the right of appeal in the Act, to a magistrate against the decision of the Registrar. The appeal, I was afterwards informed, was actually page 63 drawn up in the Magistrate's office, so needless to say, the decision was in the woman's favour, and we were ordered to place the name on the register. I had, however, a certain compromise up my sleeve, and placed the name on the class B division of the register. Class B being women registered on experience under the concession clause without proper training or examination.

Much to my amusement, a short time after this woman's name was entered, I received a letter of complaint from her that unregistered women were being employed, and that she, a registered midwife, was passed over. I replied, regretting that the mere placing of a name on the register did not guarantee that the public would employ anyone whose work did not give satisfaction.

Buried in oblivion in the files of the department, are many incidents in connection with the St. Helens hospitals which, if they could be unearthed, would be a real fund of amusement. I would love to peruse some of these old documents.

St. Helens Hospital, Auckland, was the target of much adverse criticism from a very extraordinary woman. Her name became a household word in the department for communications from her containing complaints were constantly received. She did not, of course, dream of addressing herself to anyone other than the Minister of the Department, and would have been highly indignant if she had realised that it was my humble pen which framed the replies!

She made herself the spokeswoman of the waterside workers, the wives of men engaged in that work forming the majority of cases received in hospital, or attended outside. I believe when the St. Helens was first started, she was greatly in favour of the project, and her indignation page 64 only started when Miss Peiper, whom she designated “a chit,” was appointed. She gave Miss Peiper, who was an excellent matron, and although young, had been one of the nurses sent from New Zealand to the South African War, and had gone to England to obtain her midwifery certificate, no peace with her constant complaints and stirring up of trouble over trivial things, and at last the department felt that it would be best to hold an enquiry into all complaints by a Royal Commission.

The Commission was held in Auckland and I was there for several weeks, each complaint was separately gone into, and triumphantly refuted. I sat beside the lawyer conducting our case, and was able to prompt him in his examination of witnesses as only one who thoroughly understood the situation could do. Mrs.—conducted her own case, and it was with considerable amusement that her cross examination was listened to. I was in the witness box for about an hour, and vividly remember one of her questions: “What becomes of the money subscribed for Kai Tiaki, into whose pocket does it go?” (Kai Tiaki is the nurses' journal started and edited by me, of which more anon). “Into the pockets of the publishers for printing and distribution,” was not what she hoped to bring out. As I said before, the various complaints were all satisfactorily disposed of. The report of the Commissioner exonerated the St. Helens' staff from all allegations of negligence, unkind treatment of patients and the many other accusations, which I cannot at this distance of time, remember.

The report made recommendation for the improvement of the hospital, the need of which we were already aware, but hampered by lack of money.

After this defeat, Mrs.—subsided, and we heard no more of her for quite a long time.