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New Zealand's First Refugees: Pahiatua's Polish Children

A nursing career

page 78

A nursing career

Our family of six orphan children was lucky to be selected to travel to New Zealand, as we were initially on the list for Mexico. Our mother and father had died of typhoid fever in Uzbekistan in 1942 within a few days of each other. I was the second-eldest child and placed in the senior class for one year at the Polish Children's Camp in Pahiatua. My class was a lively and closeknit group. Teaching was conducted in Polish and Miss Neligan taught us English for two or three lessons a week.

I have happy memories from the camp life, performing in little plays and nativity scenes, and leading a Girl Guides group. Once we had a Girl Guides meeting on a beautiful fine day by the river, but when cows came to visit we all ran away scared and never went back. Though I was reluctant to go to Sacred Heart College in Christchurch, I spent a year there with three other Polish girls, including Władysława Nawalaniec (later Sister Casimir). I left there to start my nursing training.

I made the right decision in selecting nursing as my career. It gave me many opportunities to make a lot of friends, and to work in various hospitals around the country. I did my general training at Masterton Public Hospital so I could be near the Pahiatua camp where my younger brother and sister were cared for until 1949. There were many long, sometimes lonely months of study in English, which was time consuming and difficult.

The social dances and nurses' balls were the highlights of my training. They gave me some light-hearted fun and excitement. It was at one of these balls that I met and danced with Peter, my future husband. His letters to me were long and always something to look forward to during my study. I did maternity training at Hastings Memorial Hospital and graduated with an award. Living in the Nurses' Home was enjoyable with the friendliness of the other girls and the community spirit. Some of the hospitable families I befriended invited me to stay during my days off. But I still missed my Polish community.

I married Peter in 1952 and during our marriage we moved several times. I worked at Wellington and Christchurch Public Hospitals, Princess Margaret, St George's Surgical Hospital, St Nicholas' Geriatric Hospital, and nursed many private cases for the Nursing Bureau in Christchurch and Lower Hutt. I also worked in Pahiatua Hospital for three months in 1950. We moved to Lower Hutt in 1975 where I was glad to be closer to my family and the Polish page 79community. I worked for 12 years as a staff nurse for the fracture clinic in Lower Hutt Hospital.

I tried four months of psychiatric training at Sunnyside Hospital, Christchurch, but this was not my cup of tea. I remember many long night shifts, and coming home to be mum to my family of five children during the day meant plenty of tiring times. I had to reluctantly retire at 60, which was the compulsory retirement age in those days. I nursed in a private geriatric hospital in Taita for a few months, then hung up my nursing uniform for gardening and my grandmother role. I have 12 lovely grandchildren from five to 28 years of age. Peter died in January 2004 and I live in Waikanae.

Józefa Węgrzyn (left) with a New Zealand nurse

Józefa Węgrzyn (left) with a New Zealand nurse