New Zealand’s original Karitane nurses: our knowledge is too precious to lose

Even though they've hit retirement age, Heather, Stephanie and Adrienne are still on the job as demand for their specialist nursing skyrockets.
Karitane Nurses

Heather Whitehead remembers being captivated by a documentary showing an army of young women in crisp white uniforms tending to a nursery brimming with swaddled babies.

This was the moment she discovered her chosen career as a 10-year-old.

“I was sitting in the old St Helier’s picture theatre in Auckland and they showed a documentary on Karitane before the movies, and I thought, ‘That’s me; that’s what I want do!'” she recalls.

Years later, Heather had to convince her father it was the right choice, but her dedication paid off and she’s now the country’s oldest known working Karitane nurse at 77.

“I just love the little ones,” she enthuses as a delightful nine-month-old she is caring for happily babbles away close by.

“I also enjoy helping mums get established and become the parent they need to be, which is what Karitane is about.”

Newly graduated Karitane nurses Stephanie (left) and Adrienne, both aged 18.

The septuagenarian is one of around 15 Karitane nurses who trained in the 1960s and ’70s still working in their specialist field across New Zealand.

“My passion is to help mums with the basics from birth onwards,” says Stephanie Meadowcroft (65), who as a youngster would happily help out with the neighbours’ kids.

“I can’t think of anything better to be,” adds Adrienne Watt (69).

“There’s such a need out there and so many mums who need that bit of advice or just having someone to tell them, ‘Yes, you’re doing the right thing.'”

Established by Dr Truby King at the start of last century to counter the dire infant mortality rate, dozens of Karitane homes were built across the country, with scores of young women training in every aspect of mothercraft, including feeding, sleep routines and recognising health issues as well as caring for new mothers.

It was only when Heather began her training that she discovered a close connection with the Kiwi institution.

“My dad was the first Truby King baby in Auckland and attended by him personally,” she explains.

“Like a lot of people, my grandmother came from England and they had no help – nobody to show them what to do.”

Where there were once 60 Karitane homes, a change in health policy meant the decades-old service was eventually disbanded in 1980.

While training stopped, nurses continued to work within Plunket and private childcare businesses.

Even though they’ve hit retirement age, Heather, Stephanie and Adrienne are still on the job as demand for their specialist nursing skyrockets.

The Karitane Nurses and Nannies Bureau is calling on former nurses to come out of retirement and the Government to reintroduce training.

“It’s desperate that they reinstate something similar because of the crisis happening now,” warns Heather.

Adds Adrienne, “We’re tired of being the ambulance at the bottom of the cliff instead of being able to be there and help these mums. Hopefully, particularly with Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and her little girl, she would realise this and say, ‘Yeah, I think it’s a brilliant idea. Let’s just do it.'”

Nurses line the drive to the Karitane Hospital at Anderson’s Bay, Dunedin, as the Queen arrives for a visit in 1954. Image: Getty Images

The women are worried when they finally stop working, it will spell the end of our unique Kiwi brand of maternal care, particularly as a portion of Karitane Nurse and Nannies’ business is working in the critical maternal mental health sector.

“It’s satisfying when a mum opens the door and the baby is screaming and she’s in tears, then when you leave, she’s got a smile on her face and the baby’s sound asleep,” says Adrienne.

“It troubles me that there are no Karitanes to carry on after us,” laments Stephanie. “We’re all getting older and when we’ve gone, there’s no-one with that knowledge to take over.

“The pressures in society are so massive that they’re only going to continue to get worse and it will be such a sad thing that these mums are getting so anxious when really it’s supposed to be such a beautiful time. They should really be enjoying their babies and not stressing about feeding and sleeping.”

The tireless trio say their experiences as mums, grannies – and for Heather as a great-grandmother – makes a difference in the expert care they offer at such a fretful time.

Says Adrienne, “As an older Karitane nurse, we have an empathy with these mums because we’ve been there. I feel it particularly when I go to these mums and they’re struggling to breastfeed. I had that experience with my own boys and can empathise with them. I can say, ‘Yes, I know exactly where you’re coming from.’ It’s good to have that.”

For now, the women have no plans to kick up their feet while struggling mums seek their wisdom.

“I’ve had everything from being weed on my head to all sorts – the joys of looking after babies!” laughs Adrienne who says she will keep going as long as she’s fit and healthy.

Heather chuckles, “I’ll keep going as long as I can, but I’m probably getting towards the limit. I’m no good with toddlers any more – they run too fast!”

Declares Stephanie, “I’ll stop doing it when I can’t do it any more. It’s my way of still having contact with babies and I still feel I have a lot to give.”

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