It all began with the uniform

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TIME TO REFLECT: Jenny Subritzky  taking time to enjoy the view after a career spanning half a century. PICTURES/SUPPLIED
TIME TO REFLECT: Jenny Subritzky taking time to enjoy the view after a career spanning half a century. PICTURES/SUPPLIED

A life of Bertie Germ in the Murder House

IT WAS the attire - "the veil, white stockings, red cardigan and white starched uniform" - that captivated the attention of 8-year-old Jenny Nilsson (later Subritzky), and set her on the path to becoming a dental therapist.

Now she has retired, bringing to an end 50 years of continuous service to oral health, after a final fortnight working from a mobile dental unit at Te Hapua School, a location where she has enjoyed much of her career treating three generations of some local families.

From the school she could also see the homestead at Paua where she grew up.

Jenny began her two-year training course at the Auckland School for Dental Nursing in 1965, after completing an application form that required many personal details, including her own dental status - number of teeth and fillings.

Student accommodation was provided in the dental hostel, under the strict control of a matron. Students were only allowed out during the weekends - until 8.30pm on Fridays, 10.30pm on Saturdays (or 11.30pm once a month, on application to the matron) and 7.30pm on Sundays.

Training was initially on treadle drills, then portable slow-speed drills.

Among her memories from those days were the students being sent out in small groups on public transport to collect jars of extracted teeth from dentists all over Auckland, and "returning holding these grotesque-looking glass jars and bus passengers being horrified". The students were later required to carve replicas of the teeth to scale using bars of soap (later wax blocks).

On graduation in 1967 she received the longed-for white veil, seamed stockings, shoes, red cardigan and starched white dress.

IN THE BEGINNING: Jenny Nillson on her graduation day.
IN THE BEGINNING: Jenny Nillson on her graduation day.

Graduates had the choice of applying to be posted to certain areas but would then be bonded to that location for two years, or could otherwise opt to be posted anywhere in New Zealand. Fortunately for Jenny, she was posted to Awanui, which included the sub-bases of Te Kao and Te Hapua.

Early days

In those days the tar seal ended at Awanui, and a phone call from the clinic to Kaitaia was a toll call. Children were summoned from surrounding schools by appointment card, but there was a high failed-to-attend rate.

"It was a big day for everyone. Generally parents brought them by car and dropped them off while they did their shopping in town. Shopping was much more of a rare event; in my own family we had our groceries delivered once a month by the renowned Steeds Stores," she said.

The clinic was equipped with a wooden chair, a spittoon, a slow-speed electric drill and a steriliser heated on a primus burner.

"You weren't supposed to let the steriliser boil dry. If you did the solder would start to melt and drip on to the bench."

Some of the children Jenny was treating were only a couple of years younger than her at the time.

She recalled travelling to Ngataki and examining the children at their school desks, using a mirror and explorer (probe), with a jar of Dettol to sterilise the equipment between patients.

"The main options for infection control were meths, Dettol and boiling water." (That solves an age-old mystery: the combination of meths and Dettol is responsible for the distinctive dental clinic smell).

Dental records were kept on individual cardboard charts that had to be posted on if children moved, and tribal consent covered all Maori children in the Far North.

Other memories from those days included plastic bibs, wooden folding chairs, hard horsehair cushions that were the only way of adjusting the chair to suit the height of the child, and the green and red rubber bulbs and nozzles for water and air.

"And we stood the whole time while we were operating," she said.

"We didn't have gloves - they're quite modern - and we used to mix the amalgam for fillings by hand, with a glass mortar and pestle to combine it and then wring out the excess mercury using a piece of gauze and our bare fingers.

"We used our own cars, and I can remember trying to fit my wooden chair and other items into my Ford Anglia. And not to forget Bertie Germ and his good and bad mates."

In those days there was no power at the Te Hapua clinic, necessitating a treadle drill, and the only phone was in the teacher's house. Jenny stayed with the headmaster and his family while working at the clinic.

The NZ Dental Nurses' Gazette was the way nurses kept in touch with the lives of their former classmates, quarterly editions providing news of marriages and births, and an annual listing of all postings, including maiden names and year of graduation.

"The articles were our main form of professional development. There were no meetings or CPD."

Marching for pay

There was close interaction between government departments during that era, and she was twice involved in marches on Parliament in support of better pay and conditions, but unmarried mothers were considered to be unemployable. Her own first pregnancy resulting in a letter from the Principal Dental Officer with an ultimatum: marry or leave.

"Working mothers were also virtually unheard of and frowned upon, but I have two wonderful sons who have become fine dads and husbands, and I'm very proud of them," she added.

Jenny and her family spent 22 years living and working in Auckland but returned to the Far North in 1994. And much had changed over the years, including the advent of high-speed drills, stainless crowns, fissure sealants and better anaesthetics, leading to virtually pain-free dentistry.

"We do a lot more radiographs too. You can see a lot in a radiograph that you can't see with a naked eye," she said.

"And dental assistants who came on board in 1996-97. That's been wonderful. I can't thank my awesome assistants enough. We actually spend more time together than most families and build a professional relationship, but also become friends, sharing many personal issues and supporting each other.

"There's much less decay now too. It's become really noticeable over the past four or five years. I think people are more aware and take on board the messages more these days, and fluoride has played a big part.

"It's great to be going out to a school that would once have taken us six weeks and doing it in three, and not taking out hordes of teeth."

The children needing the most work had generally just moved into the area, continuity of care achieving better results.

"Going to the schools is important, especially in areas like this where it's a 120km trip one way to get to Kaitaia, and finding that extra for expensive fuel can be a challenge for families with a lack of employment opportunities," she added.

Murder House

Meanwhile the reputation of the dental clinic as the feared 'murder house' had all but disappeared.

"The kids come running in here. The odd one we do have a problem with is usually due to an adult saying something negative to them. The kids don't refer to it as the murder house any more," she said.

"Sometimes children trust us enough to talk about things that are going on at home. I think it's being one-to-one and away from everybody - over a few years you get to know the signals that somebody wants to confide in you and talk about something."

Others that had dropped into clinics over the years included a pig that made its way up the stairs at Ngataki, and horses that had poked their heads in the door.

So had the experience fulfilled the dreams of an 8-year-old with an eye for a stylish uniform?

"If you'd asked me that 10 years ago I would have possibly said no. I've seen a number of years of changes, and things didn't flow.

" I was in management for a number of years, but then I wanted to get back to grass roots and be amongst the communities and children where all the action was and the work I have a real passion for.

"But it's gelled now, and I think we have to take our hats off to Pip (Zammit, oral health service manager) and Jeanette (Wedding, general manager, child, youth, maternal, public and oral health) for that.

"It's very fulfilling and I still love it - love the kids and the job - and it's been a mammoth decision to make to retire, one of the biggest of my lifetime."

The future involves spending more time on her lifestyle block, taking care of pigs, cows, chooks, guinea fowl, Muscovy ducks and dogs and entertaining tourists in guest accommodation on the property. Jenny is also looking forward to being more available for family.

"Where there's a lot of pressure on working families, it's great to be able to give the kids a break in the country," she said.

" We used to go fishing here in Te Hapua in the lunch hour, but we came back with hands smelling of bait, so we had to knock that on the head and sedately look at the harbour instead.

"And I'd like to do more voluntary work, once I adapt to my new lifestyle."

And after 50 years she's going to enjoy longer fingernails and nail polish whenever she feels like it.

" I thank all the wonderful people, including children, families and work colleagues, who have given me treasured memories, touched my life and helped me through my amazing career and life's journey to this stage."

- Northland Age

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