By Jodi Bryant
The thought of carrying out 40 years of full-time night shifts would make many shudder. But for Vinnie Walters, who raised two children during these years, it suited her to a T.
It's weeks after her retirement but, after being actively immersed in renovations to their country cottage with husband Jack, Vinnie finally takes time to reflect.
Vinnie was 17 when she began nurse training at Whangarei Hospital. She completed this in 1971 but put her career on hold to have a family. In 1978, she returned as an enrolled nurse and worked in women's health/gynaecology. Here she began night shifts, which evolved to Monday-Friday, allowing weekends off. Women's health later combined with surgical services and Vinnie worked in this surgical short stay ward ever since.
"I did a day shift stint once and it was terrible!" she exclaims. "I had to get up at 5.30am, leave home at 6.30, get home at 4pm and there was washing to be done, tea to be cooked – I felt like I was on-the-go all the time.
"Night duty just seemed to fit our lifestyle."
This entailed 11pm starts and 7am finishes and Vinnie would arrive home by 7.30am as Jack, a self-employed builder, was heading out the door. She would then get the kids off to school, before closing the curtains on the day and retiring to bed.
But Vinnie, 69, doesn't feel like she missed out on anything and she certainly didn't let her nocturnal lifestyle affect her role as a mother.
"I seemed to have more opportunities because, when you're on dayshift, you have to ask for time off. If there was a school activity, I'd go to that. If there was a funeral to go to at 10am, I'd schedule my sleep around it."
Described at her farewell as 'one of the Whangarei Hospital Legends', her colleagues are still mystified as to how she survived those hours.
"How have you managed all those years doing five nights a week and sleeping in the day and then going back to sleeping normally at the weekends?" they questioned. "It is the ultimate mystery to us all. All we know for sure is that night shifts have just suited you and we know they have certainly suited us!"
"I'd often have a split sleep," Vinnie explains, adding that she could probably sleep standing up. "When the kids went to school at 8am, I'd jump into bed and usually wake about 1pm and do chores or shopping or go to appointments. Then the kids would come home so I'd get tea ready and hop back in bed at 7.30pm, then get back up, shower and go to work."
Vinnie says, after Jack arrived home from work at 5.30pm, they would always eat dinner together as a family 'which is quite a big achievement these days'.
"There was always an adult at home so we didn't need to worry about childcare. The way life was, you needed two incomes to have a decent life and that's the way life still is today. The good thing was we always had the weekends together."
Indeed, the weekends were spent getting that much-needed Vitamin D and fitness fix with games of tennis, along with Mondays, fresh from a weekend off, before heading back to work that night.
In her ward, Vinnie was renowned for many medical skills, and has mentored countless new graduate nurses and staff and was often called on for advice from peers, who described her as a 'pool of resources' while able to remain calm and composed and with a cheerful sense of humour even on her fifth night.
"It's the comradeship built up over all those years and every-day contact with staff I will miss. I even miss it now. The friends you make become life-long friends.
"I loved the job. Of course, you're going to have your odd patient who's not compliant but, on the whole, they're just lovely. They felt really grateful for what you did and you just felt you wanted to do more for them – it's part of being a nurse."
Retirement plans include a cruise with Jack, who has been retired himself for five years, more time with her four grandkids and Vinnie has no plans to return for the odd shift.
"No, I've fully-retired as I might get itchy feet and would just want to come back and do more.
"Just keeping in contact with a few of the girls from work is what I want to do and day trips and I'm hoping to get back into tennis.
So how might Vinnie be settling into normal functioning hours now that she is retired?
"Actually, I'm waking up so early in the morning it's unreal. It doesn't matter what time I go to bed, I still just keep waking at 5.30am! So now I just get up and go for a walk around the block ten times. I do have a little nod off in the afternoon because, I don't know, I got up too early I suppose."
Vinnie is this month's nominee for our Local Legends $100 New World Kerikeri Gift Card.
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