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Hospital 125th: Mental health leader puts quality first

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Joan Chettleburgh, a qualified nurse, who was to become a prominent leader in healthcare, was actually turned down when she went for her first interview at Palmerston North Hospital in 1966.

“I had just arrived in Palmerston North and met with the Chief Nurse. I had three young children at home and when I said I wanted a part-time job, 9am to 3pm, Monday to Friday, she laughed and I was sent on my way,” Joan said.
But fewer than 24 hours later she got a call from the hospital asking if she could come back in and work in Ward 2. “That was a surgical ward where the eye cases ended up, and since I had experience with eye work from my training in Dunedin, I was in luck.
“Eventually, when a specialist eye ward was set up in Ward 17, I was put in charge.  We also took the overflow from other wards including a number of psychiatric patients, instead of sending them on to Porirua. This included mothers with newborn babies.”

Joan Chettleburgh.

In 1974, Joan was given a Health Bursary and travelled the world taking in hospitals in the United States, Canada, Norway, UK, and the Netherlands.
“I also started my degree in nursing, which took me seven years to complete as my work schedule was very heavy. I had become a supervisor in intensive care, coronary care and in infectious diseases. By that time my children were grown up and I was working long hours.
“It was becoming clear to me that I couldn’t really make a lot of changes being so involved in the day-to-day running of the wards. This led me to take a job in Levin at Horowhenua Hospital as Principal Nurse. I thought that in a small hospital, just 144 beds, there would be more scope to be innovative.
“My prime concern is care of people, and that means quality of care.  That drove me.  I became a Surveyor for Accreditation with Quality Health and ended up visiting many hospitals around the country. I was then made Manager of the Horowhenua Hospital and helped set up New Zealand’s first psycho-geriatric ward there.  It was the first hospital to be accredited outside the pilots.”
Later Joan was called on to manage Whanganui Hospital, but only given three days to make the transition. Six months later, after a bout of restructuring, she was made Assistant General Manager of Mental Health Services in the region and one of her first tasks was to close Lake Alice Hospital.
Joan was now working 18 hours a day review staffing levels and telling patients what was happening and how they would be relocated. Two trusts were set up, in Palmerston North (MASH) and Whanganui, to work with patients and teach them how to live in the community. At the same time a house in Marton catering for 46 patients was shut down and those patients relocated temporarily to Lake Alice.
Joan says: “The care of people is paramount, and some of the sad things I saw at Lake Alice will haunt me for the rest of my life. But I still meet some of those patients today in the street and they come and give me a hug. They are making great progress in the community.”
Joan left Palmerston North Hospital in 1993 and subsequently worked for the Ministry of Health up until three years ago on various projects that have taken her over the whole country, including, she says, the Chatham Islands three times.
Looking back, Joan says she feels a great sense of satisfaction that she was able to change lives for the better.
“I think the health sector is changing rapidly – it is not a place where you can stand still. Innovation is critical.”
- Written by Paula McCool

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