ENCOUNTER: The forgotten, my family

Who: Hilda Wevers
What: Retired mental health nurse
Where: Carrington's Cafe
Why: Fifty years of experience

We drive around the grounds of the former Carrington Psychiatric Hospital. Hilda Wevers sits in the back seat, talking animatedly about the good old days.

"That used to be nurses' barracks,'' she says, pointing to an old prefab building. "I lived there for six years before I got married.''
Further down the track, closer to what is now the Mason Clinic, Hilda points out a woman sitting on a brick wall.
"That's the patient that slapped me once.''
More memories come pouring out. There's plenty of them. Hilda spent 50 years working
here as a mental health nurse. Bright-eyed and vigorous, sporting a starched hat and crisp white uniform, Hilda started off as a nurse aide at Auckland Mental Health Hospital, as it was known, in 1959.
"It's ironic, because my grandma lived in Waterview. We'd hear the sirens go off and the
general assumption was that someone had escaped. All I could think was 'Who the hell
would want to work there?','' she says.
Hilda's first impression of the geriatrics' ward was that the little old ladies in it behaved in a most un-little-old-ladylike fashion.
"Put it this way, they didn't know there were toilets.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest would be an accurate description.''
Hilda's plan was to work for three months, save some money and get out of there. An extra 5 pounds a week coaxed her into staying on and completing three years of nursing training.
Hilda witnessed major changes to the mental health system over the decades that followed. New psychotic drugs came and went, electric-shock treatment fell out of favour and was used less often, occupational therapy and psychotherapy also changed things.
Better services meant many patients moved to halfway homes in nearby suburbs. Older patients - previously dumped in psychiatric hospitals - were moved to rest homes.
"There were major changes in attitude and the system became a lot more humane. In the past, there was a lot of stigma around psychotics and people were afraid.''
To many, they may have been the forgotten people. But to Hilda, many patients became like family.
"We put on a 31st birthday party for a patient once and he told me it was the first time he'd celebrated his birthday.''
The average working week was 60 hours. Staff shortages were acute and most nurses had only one day off a week. But it wasn't all hard yakka. After all, this was the swinging 60s - the days of beehive hairdos, frocks and rock'n'roll. Come 4.30 on a Friday afternoon, the nurses had taxis waiting to take them to the Great Northern hotel in the city, on the corner of Queen and Customs streets. The bars closed at 6pm, but the night was far from over.
"So where did you go after that?'' I ask tentatively.
After a moment's silence, Hilda leans across the table. "The ships,'' she whispers mischievously from behind her pink designer glasses about the docks that were a short walk from the hotel.
At 71, Hilda still likes to dance. And as if to prove it, she  pulls a Village People CD from her Trelise Cooper shopping bag.
Carrington was scaled right down in the late 80s and early 90s. The hospital's old building was sold to Unitec and the Mason Clinic - Auckland's forensic mental health unit - opened in 1991.
"Forensics was new and exciting,'' recalls Hilda. "You'd wake up in the morning and wonder what would happen that day.''
Violent behaviour, the Privacy Act, high-profile patients. These were things Hilda hadn't
had to consider before. But again, she soldiered on - and did it with a smile on her face.
"All I can say is that I've been very lucky to have worked in this job and met some of the
people I have. I've had such an interesting job. I don't think too many people can say that.''
So where to from here? Surely after 50 years of hard work, one deserves a break. Perhaps a vacation in the South of France? But no. Two months into her retirement, Hilda volunteers at the West Auckland Hospice. As she departs, still sprightly, Hilda tells us to "be good girls now, won't you?''
I can't help but tell her that there's a new bar, The Northern Steamship, on the corner of Customs St. I wouldn't be surprised if I bumped into her there.
A building known as Carrington
The building on Carrington Rd, nowadays occupied by Unitec's faculty of art and design, was built in 1865.
Until the 1990s, it was a psychiatric hospital known under a variety of names: the Lunatic Asylum at the Whau, Auckland Lunatic Asylum, Avondale Hospital, Auckland Mental Health Hospital, Oakley Hospital and, finally, Carrington Psychiatric Hospital.
Money to build the asylum was raised by the provincial government and the plans brought from England. In 1877, a fire destroyed almost the entire first floor of the east wing and a female patient died.

- The Aucklander

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