Pauline's story


Pauline describes being diagnosed with tuberculosis as a young student nurse in the 1940s and the two years she spent in a sanatorium.

“I began my nursing training in October 1946. I passed my medical and my chest X-ray was clear. After our preliminary study I was posted to an old men's ward for one to two weeks. Just after Christmas I developed a little, very annoying cough and also became very tired and couldn't understand why. I started coughing and one of the girls said to me "Oh nurse, you've got blood all over your hand" Well, I looked at my hand and oh, panic, panic.

I was put into Christchurch Hospital. I had another X-ray and after four days the specialist came and sat on my bed and told me I had tuberculosis. I really hadn't heard of it. He told me I would be moved up to the Cashmere Sanatorium and be in bed there for six to nine months. Well, when you are seventeen, six to nine months seems like a lifetime, but it turned out that I was in the Sanatorium for two years. The first 15 months in Coronation Hospital, then when improving, up to the Upper San. and then down to the Middle San. which consisted of shacks in rows on the hillside. These shacks had sliding doors on three sides which were always to be kept open.

Where it actually affected me was high in the left lung and I think the bug attacked a blood vessel straight away and that was why I haemorrhaged. Each time I haemorrhaged the cavities became larger. Luckily the disease showed itself early and I was so relieved to learn that I hadn't passed the bug on to my classmates and family. Their tests were all negative. Incidentally, I was the only one in our nursing class who didn't smoke.

It hadn't really been explained to me how bad I was. I was in Coronation Hospital with six other young nurses from the South Island. I survived, whereas those other poor girls died all around me. I think I slept for the first few weeks. I just wanted to sleep and sleep. There were so many beds pushed very close together on long balconies, open to the weather and in Christchurch those easterly winds and that misty rain, everything would be damp. We couldn't have flowers on our lockers, they would blow off. We would try to do handwork, but on cold days our hands would freeze. We had a horse hair mattress, two chaff pillows, two hospital blankets and a white quilt and there we were on the balconies in all weathers.

In the time I spent in Coronation we were moved into the ward only once and that was in a real storm. I am sure half the girls died of pneumonia. We froze. My recollections are of aching legs from the cold and lying in bed at night waiting for the night nurse to come around at two o'clock in the morning. She would refill our hot water bottles and you'd cuddle it like a piece of gold. You were not given any more pillows unless you were really ill, - going to die!.

We had to amuse ourselves, no radio, no TV. One night after lights out, one of the girls stood on her bed with a potty on her head, singing Irish ditties. We were all laughing but I started coughing and I haemorrhaged again and felt sick with fear. On his ward rounds the following morning the specialist pointed to me and said, "What's she doing with only two pillows?" I then had pillows stacked up around me. Another cavity had formed in my lung. I was scared stiff. I imagined I was going to die like so many others around me had. Their health gradually deteriorated and they just faded away.

The only treatment then was fresh air, rest and surgery. They tried to collapse my lung with artificial pneumothorax. This is a procedure where the lung is artificially collapsed to rest it. Younger doctors now may not have even heard of it. First of all a huge needle was pushed through the rib cage and pressed right through the pleura. They filled up the gap between the lung and the outer rib cage with air. You could feel the air gurgling out through your tissues. At first it was necessary to have two 'fill-ups' a week, later once a week and if improving, every fortnight. A large needle, like a great big darning needle was pushed through the ribs and you hoped they wouldn't hit the ribs. We didn't like new doctors because they always tried to insert the needle up by the armpit and it hurt much more. Invariably they couldn't get it through up there and we hated that. I have actually still got a pincushion where the needles went in. My lung was kept collapsed for seven years. As an outpatient, I would go back for fill-ups, (sounds like car tyres doesn't it?). Unfortunately, the part of my lung that should have collapsed was held up with adhesions and these were too high in the chest wall to cut.

So my name was then wait-listed for the dreaded thoracotomy surgery in Wellington. I'd seen those who had returned after that surgery. They were disfigured with one shoulder drooping down and a large scar running from under the shoulder blade at the back to the front. I was very afraid of this. But before this dreaded 'thoro' surgery it was decided that I have phrenic nerve crush surgery. This nerve at the base of the neck controls the diaphragm. As the nerve was being crushed I felt a jumping and rippling in my chest as my lung was reducing to a third of its size. The surgery worked, the lung could now rest and it was only time now for the cavities to heal. I survived while so many died.

Eventually I was discharged. The worst thing was the terrible stigma. I never mentioned to anybody that I had had TB as I had learned from experience that people would visibly jump back or quickly move away and I never mentioned it for years and years.

So when my grandchildren ask now, "what did you do when you were young?" What did I do? I spent two years in bed. I didn't go to dances. I didn't have, as my grandson says, any 'social life' at all."

This story has been edited from a recorded interview with Pauline for the Piercing Memories project and is posted on IMAC’s website with her consent. The interviewer was Elaine Ellis-Pegler.