NZNO’s newly-elected president Heather Symes brings a range of attributes to her new role. She has an outsider’s perspective (she was born in Ireland); the mental health nurse’s kit of practice skills; experience working with some of the most marginalised members of our society; a forthright manner; and an enduring belief in the importance of nurses’ political action.
She believes all will stand her in good stead “directing the waka”, along with kaiwhakahaere Kerri Nuku.
Symes left Ireland to train as a nurse in London in the mid ’80s – “there was nothing in Ireland for us then”. She completed her general training at the Whittington Hospital in north London and then embarked on her mental health nurse training at Middlesex University and Muswell Hill, a large London psychiatric hospital.
Once graduated, she worked in a large methadone clinic, and a needle exchange complex in central London. “Anyone could come in off the street. The emphasis was on harm minimisation and it was a one-stop shop. It provided a huge range of services – from a GP once a week, to drop-in sessions every afternoon; from education on how to inject safely to accompanying clients to appointments with social welfare agencies. It was a very ethnically diverse community, with people from around the world. Working there was a real eye opener for me.” What she learnt there has informed her practice ever since.
Travelling was always on the cards and when a friend bailed on a joint adventure, she applied for the one-year working holiday visas to New Zealand for Republic of Ireland citizens – there were just 50 each year. She was successful and came to New Zealand in the mid-90s, “zig-zagging” her way around the country, enjoying the people and a nomadic lifestyle. She stayed in Christchurch and got a job on Hillmorton’s acute wards. When the year was up, she returned home but, on touching down in London, she realised she wanted to return to New Zealand. “It was a great place. I felt comfortable there. I liked the people and I liked the fact there was no emphasis on religion or ethnicity.”
She spent time in Ireland sorting out documentation before returning to Christchurch in 1996 and mental health nursing at Hillmorton, where she has continued to work in a range of settings for the last 24 years. She has taken a year’s leave of absence from her role as a mental health nurse with the community forensic team to take up the NZNO presidency.
Symes ran for the presidency because “it was a good opportunity to get to the top table to make a few changes. I want to work collaboratively and to get on with the job of helping govern the organisation”. She is clear her role is governance, not operations and management – “that’s up to NZNO staff. We could do nothing without our staff”.
The new board is “hugely diverse” with Māori and Pākehā, women and men, an enrolled nurse, nurses from the public and private sectors, and members of different ages. “It’s a really good team and we are all there for the right reasons – the good of the members and the betterment of the organisation.”
Symes is focused on moving forward together, after recent disunity in board ranks. “That was before my time. All I know is that from now on, we will be a board of unity and solidarity and will be doing our best for the organisation.”
Her skills as a mental health nurse will stand her in good stead in the role, she believes. “I’m a good negotiator. I’m not afraid to front up to people. I’m good at calming situations down and finding a resolution through consensus and compromise.”
She says she’s on a steep learning curve. “There’s a lot I can learn about about financial management and IT.” She enjoyed the board’s Institute of Directors’ governance training last month.
Symes sees NZNO’s bicultural relationship as working in collaboration with Nuku and always considering the articles of te Tiriti o Waitangi in discussions and decisions. “The treaty is one of the most important documents in this country; it’s our founding document. It affects all our lives and we must always bear it in mind.”
She believes there are some parallels between the Irish and Māori experiences of colonisation, land confiscation and suppression of language. “New Zealand is extremely lucky to have the treaty.”
‘Stronger union focus’
Some issues she’d like to promote while president include a stronger union focus for NZNO and more political activism by nurses – “how many nurses have visited their MP and talked about our issues?” A more just society has been a long-held goal and she is keen to promote equity of access to health services and treatment for Māori and other vulnerable populations. “On average, Māori die 10 years earlier than non-Māori. Why is that ok?”
So, it will be a busy year – her term ends in September 2021. She hopes by the end of that year, NZNO “will be in a better place than it has been over the last year. If we lose our members, we lose everything”.