Sunday, 23 September 2018

The towns biggest enterprise

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My very earliest recollection of life is visiting my father in the Masterton Hospital when I was two-and-a-half years old. I vividly remember this for two reasons. First we weren’t allowed to go into the hospital proper because he had diphtheria and was therefore isolated. I clearly recall my mother holding me up to the window where I could talk to my father from the wide concrete window ledge above the solid brick wall.

The main reason the memory lingers however was that my father told us of a disturbance during the night when a large contingent of Japanese prisoners-of-war had been admitted who were seriously wounded. The word Japanese, given the state of the world at the time, struck terror into the heart of an impressionable two-and-a-half year old.

The Japanese had come from the POW camp at Featherston. The Japanese never did invade New Zealand despite widespread fears that they would, but around 800 prisoners who had been captured at Guadalcanal were brought to Featherston in 1942.

They were mostly civilians who had been drafted into the Japanese navy, but later captured military personnel were also interned at Featherston. These military prisoners regarded capture as the ultimate disgrace and some wanted to commit suicide. In February 1943 there was a sit-down strike and a subsequent riot that saw the guards open fire, although there had apparently been no order to shoot.

Although the one-sided altercation only lasted about thirty seconds 31 Japanese were killed instantly, 17 died later and about 74 were wounded. If 91 wounded and dying Japanese had been admitted to the Masterton hospital the night before I was taken to visit my father perhaps I had good reason to be alarmed.

Of the historical accounts I have been able to read on the subject there is no disclosure about where the wounded prisoners were taken. The whole incident was hushed up at the time in case there was retaliation in the Japanese camps on Kiwi POW’s.

It’s entirely possible then that I was the only infant in the country to have been briefed about the episode.

Having lived in Lansdowne for the greater part of my life, to some extent the hospital has tended to loom large. Various visits for minor ailments; having my tonsils and adenoids and then my appendix removed causing my older sister to taunt me by saying that “I wasn’t all there.” A cruel description back then of someone who was mentally deficient. She was probably quite right on that count, but it was unfair to blame the extraction of body parts.

I’ve always wondered if the medical profession will one day discover that there is a vital role for the appendix and advocate to have them all put back again.

Later I did my courting – now there’s an old-fashioned word - at the hospital; eventually marrying a nurse whom I constantly remind is the luckiest woman in the world; though I suspect that she does not necessarily share this view.

In 2006 the government presented the town with a  brand spanking new hospital, now renamed Wairarapa rather than Masterton, despite being contained within the same grounds as the original infirmary. Perhaps the government "presenting" is a misnomer. Actually the Wairarapa District Health Board (WrDHB) have to pay back the cost out of the population-based funds the government meagerly provides.

Solid brick walls have been supplanted by a temporary-looking Hardiplank structure and outwardly the single-storey fabrication looks considerably less imposing than its predecessor which still lingers forlornly in the background.

One option was to upgrade the existing hospital however the WrDHB's resolution to go for a totally new structure was probably the sensible decision. It is exceptionally well configured and is filled with hi-tech equipment, no doubt some of it manufactured by the Japanese.

The wards contain a number of single rooms with en-suites and lead to a centralised nursing station and this looks suitably efficient. There are accessible, well equipped out-patient facilities set in bright and airy corridors and the well-planted courtyards which provide a healing outlook from most corners of the building.

You almost wish you were sick so that you could experience the place first hand. 

Back in 2006 when I first visited the new edifice I asked where the entrance to the nurse’s home was, hoping one day to be able to pass on this vital information to my growing grandsons. Sadly, I was told these institutions are a thing of the past. No wonder dating apps are so popular.

The old hospital had over 300 beds with about 12 doctors and 100 nurses to cope with the infirm. Despite a massive increase in population since the original hospital was established the new institution has only 94 beds, but is staffed by 45 doctors and 300 nurses plus the usual plethora of administration people. There a message here somewhere, but I haven't a clue what it is.

If my appendix had been kept in formalin no doubt it will have been lost in transit during the shift from the old to the new. So if modern medical science does decree that reinstating this once non-vital organ is now essential for your ongoing good health I'm probably going to have to miss out.

“After two days in hospital, I took a turn for the nurse.” - W. C. Fields.