50 years nursing, going strong — and taking action to protect the profession she loves

April 14, 2023

A nearly 50-year career in nursing had a shaky start – fainting at the sight of a naked elderly patient – but Viv Draper says she has no regrets and will struggle to leave her job at Christchurch’s spinal unit when the time comes.

On Saturday, Draper is joining a Christchurch rally – one of 20 around the country –  in a national day of action because she wants nurses to feel valued – and for more to join the profession she loves.


Enrolled nurse Viv Draper is joining Saturday’s national day of action because she wants people to join the profession.

“I’m of an age where I’m going to need the [health] system too, and we need to have more nurses, and we need to have them happy.”

In the late 1980s, Draper took her two young children to the first national nurse’s strike in New Zealand.

“I think it was really empowering and it brought us all together. I see a lot of disillusionment in the staff I work with, and . . . hopefully [the national day of action] will bring people together a bit more.”

At 16, Draper moved from Temuka, South Canterbury, to Christchurch for a job as a geriatric hospital nurse aide, and accommodation in a nurse’s hostel.

She didn’t have a “burning desire” to be a nurse, but saw it as a way to get out of the small rural town.

Despite fainting at the sight of a naked elderly patient on her first day, Draper was allowed to stay and prove her mettle – which she did.

“When I came to, I thought, ‘Oh gawd, that’s me on the next bus back to Temuka’.”

Viv Draper, pictured in 1975, said she benefited from being able to earn an income and free accommodation while working as a nurse aide, and studying for her enrolled nurse qualification.

A colleague soon encouraged Draper to become an enrolled nurse, and the pair moved to Burwood Hospital. But a month in, Draper felt it wasn’t for her and took a letter of resignation to the matron’s secretary.

Told she would need to speak to the matron in person, Draper quickly withdrew the letter.

“There was no way in hell I was telling that woman I was leaving, I was terrified of her.”

She carried on with the training and was assigned to the spinal unit at Christchurch Hospital for a final placement.

“I didn’t even know people like this existed.”

A vivid memory of a young patient lying prone in her bed and screaming in pain has stayed with her.

“I thought, what is this place? But it actually didn’t take very long and I thought, I like this, I like it here.”

Apart from a few years in another ward, Draper has worked in the spinal unit ever since.

She said caring for “inspirational” patients gave her huge professional satisfaction and said the unit was a fun place to work.

“[For the patients] life has changed in an instant, and they are away from home, it’s just tragic, but their resilience, and how they cope with it, I just look at all of them and think ‘there but for the grace of God go I’.”

Draper said she enjoyed the professional challenge of working with a diverse range of patients, at different stages and levels of need.

Viv Draper, with her daughter Aleisha, who worked as a health care assistant at the same hospital for several years before pursuing a corporate role.

Both her son and daughter followed in their mother’s footsteps, working as health care assistants at Burwood Hospital, where Draper is based.

“It was a real thrill having a kid at work for 22 years.”

Both children have moved from clinical to managerial roles, rather than pursuing a nursing career.

Draper said high fees and lack of income were a barrier for her daughter, who wanted to become a nurse. Instead she has built a satisfying career in a non-clinical hospital role, Draper said.

For Draper, the thought of leaving her job is difficult.

“I think they might have to prise me out, I think my body will tell me when I have to go.”

Last year, Draper suffered an injury to her shoulder and was off work for four-and-a-half months, but said she couldn’t wait to get back.

Enrolled nurse Viv Draper with her daughter and grand-daughters at a strike rally in 2018.

“By the end of it I couldn’t wait to get back to work, I felt I was losing my identity, I missed it so much and it was such a buzz to work my way back, and say ‘wow, at my age I’ve managed to overcome this injury’.”