Pauline Stansfield became a paraplegic at age 29 in an accident. After becoming a nurse tutor and practicing for some time, Pauline then worked in the community and among people with disabilities. This won her at age 80 the highly regarded 2020 New Year Honour of MNZM, Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit.
Pauline was born in 1939 at Birkenhead, Auckland to home-loving Christian parents. She had an older sister, Briar, and a brother Frank, and their father made a good living making and selling hats. She attended Auckland Girls’ Grammar, travelling daily by bus – this was before the Auckland harbour bridge was constructed.
Pauline learned piano from the age of eight and loved it. She had musical ability, performed well and won prizes in competitions and music exams (passing grade 8 and ATCL), even though she found them nerve-wracking! As a teenager, she committed herself to following Christ, and taught Sunday School at her Brethren Assembly.
After school, Pauline started working in a bank, and took the chance to study at university. Pauline then chose nursing as her career – she recalls this was partly to get away from her restrictive mother! Training at this time was based within hospitals, and the work in the wards was “crazily busy”, but she enjoyed the patients, and attained Distinction in one of her papers. That gave courage to tackle more university study. Pauline’s parents thought girls did not need a career; she knew she would not get financial assistance. So for income, Pauline worked as a house mistress at Diocesan High School for girls and did agency nursing in the holidays. She studied English literature, Biblical history, and Education, and enjoyed house-sharing with three other Christian young women on the Auckland side of the harbour. After this, it felt right for her to travel to London to train to become a Tutor Sister, training nurses.
A new life
Pauline studied at the Royal Free Hospital. In June 1969 she went on a minivan trip through Europe to Moscow. It was during that holiday that disaster struck. The van in which she was travelling rolled, and Pauline woke up half in and half out of one of the back windows. Later, it was found she had a low lumbar rupture to her spinal cord, and six double fractures of her ribs.
‘The Russian people were kind, but it was a very bad move to hail down any old truck to take a newly paralyzed person to hospital. An ambulance should have been called and I should have been strapped on to a stretcher to keep my spine in alignment…
I must lay some of the blame for my paraplegia on completely wrong immediate care.’
So comments Pauline now concerning the accident that changed her life.
She found herself in a hospital in the town of Vyshni Volochek and the Russian health authorities would not allow any medically trained friends or doctors to come to her aid, and took no medical advice from her, the patient, even with her medical background. She lay there and experienced them doing 10 out of the 11 things it was possible to do wrong, including not turning her. So she got shocking bed-sores, large lung complications, pleurisy and pneumonia. After operating, they stitched her with plain string! Her spine was allowed to set straight instead of with the normal back curve. And along with all of that, she had to endure phantom pains in her legs that were supposedly not able to feel. She became depressed, extremely ill and could have died.
Then a remarkable thing happened while Pauline lay almost motionless in the Russian hospital bed:
“I was in a mess! A terrible mess physically, near to death (to be quite frank), and I was ready to go, when I had an amazing experience. One day my room suddenly quieted. I looked straight into a brilliant white light. It was heaven’s entrance, guarded by a huge angel dressed in shining white garments. He had glistening white wings and a firm expression on his face.
“I asked tentatively, ‘Please may I come to Heaven now?’ I knew he was in Heaven. ‘No, you can’t enter,’ he said firmly. ‘You have work to do.’ He didn’t stipulate what work, but that was exciting in itself. So, I was going to live! I was going to get out of Russia and go on with my life’s work! What a commission and it was so personal.”
Now Pauline had a challenge, a life-purpose from God. She needed that. Her brother Frank had come from New Zealand and then her father. Pauline was vomiting frequently, unable to keep food down, beside all the other problems. But it was two months before they could get her moved to the specialist spinal hospital in England at Stoke Mandeville for rehabilitation.
Eventually, nearly a year later, Pauline was well and mobile enough to return to work where the Royal Free had kept her a job and she was able to teach the nursing students from her wheelchair. She obtained her registered Nurse Tutor’s Diploma and in 1973 returned to New Zealand.
For a year she taught at Auckland School of Nursing, then moved to Wellington Polytechnic to teach Medical and Surgical nursing. While the building included lifts and was designed somewhat for the needs of disabled teachers and students, there were no disability toilets! Nevertheless, it proved a happy environment for Pauline with good pay and enjoyable colleagues. Over time however, she felt dragged down with increasing pain and the work became exhausting. With no proper drugs in those days to manage the pain, she had to resign.
Pauline then started working in promotions, working towards the International Year of the Child. At one time, as a publicity stunt, Pauline was preparing to roll down the Ngarongo Gorge in her chair, but in the end the Police would not let her. ‘It was too dangerous,’ Pauline laughs. ‘Still, the IYC celebration was fun.’ At the end of a march to parliament she met Prince Charles and shook hands with him, admitting she had not rolled her chair all the way, having driven to the wharf.
But Auckland called when Pauline’s elderly father began having falls. She bought a home on flat land in Glenfield within reach of her parents in Birkenhead. With her hand-controlled car, Pauline could drive straight into her garage for internal access to her home which brother Frank and his wife Val helped set up with furniture, piano, and a friendly cat.
Now for work. Pauline organised to cover two jobs—part-time Secretary of Disabled Person’s Assembly (DPA) and registered piano teacher in the afternoons, using the music skills she had garnered years before. For two years she also drove her mother many days to the hospital to see her father. In this major career shift Pauline worked hard to reinvent herself as a piano teacher, fulfilling the professional requirements for accreditation to the association of piano teachers. She loved the students and enjoyed the work – though it was tiring too, especially when added to how she ‘exercised like mad’ at the swimming pool to keep healthy.
The DPA work was much needed as many people with disabilities found it difficult or impossible to access services at this time. Pauline spent hours attending and writing up meetings, writing formal letters, and helping individuals. She undertook the taxing task of surveying wheelchair access to public buildings across the North Shore. Over months and joined by assistants each time, Pauline started in Takapuna and progressed to Whangapararoa, discovering many buildings seriously lacking access. In Northcote she could not even access the disability parking!
The report Pauline wrote was damning, especially with regard to access to dentists. Access to doctors was easier. Shops were often difficult and assistants were often not prepared to help. Pauline’s heart went out to all the people who suffered such disadvantage. The whole project received considerable publicity in the papers. Some businesses must have got quite a shock.
The then MP for North Shore, Judy Keall, took an interest in helping people with disabilities, and put forward Pauline’s name to become a Justice of the Peace. Pauline agreed and this job became a large commitment for 30 years (unpaid). It was sometimes 20 hours work a week – she had to keep a record of the time – of reviewing paperwork from all sorts of people streaming to her door, including visa applicants, refugees, and migrants. Some became friends for years after and Pauline enjoyed their company. This all fitted around her work as a piano teacher in her front room. Her front door became a very busy place!
Church was another commitment for Pauline. She joined Glenfield Baptist in about 1985 and later worshipped at Northcote Baptist. At Northcote she learned from a missionary couple, Stephen and Raewyn Pattemore, about paraplegics in Phukhet, Thailand: pearl divers who have got paralysed from decompression accidents, sadly common due to poor work practices and economic pressure. Pauline had helped getting beach buggies for paraplegics on Takapuna Beach. Now she focused on getting beach buggies for Phukhet and going to Thailand to train these men to use them.
Reflections and Acknowledgement
Often people wanted to pray for Pauline to be healed or for her frequent phantom pain to ease. She was grateful for their kind thought, but not only was she not healed, the frightful pain continued to come and go, and sometimes remained all day. She was a regular attender at the Pain Clinic, but the tablets for pain made her drowsy when she needed to get work done. She gave up trying to understand her suffering – while disappointed, she knew that God had given her all these tasks and people to help.
Indeed, Pauline still felt the commission of the angel who visited her while she was so sick in Russia. That tryst continued to inspire her. God had given her work to do. Her analysis still turns to that:
‘I could have sat back and not tried. I did coast at times. But I finished up with thousands of meetings with people. I accepted that challenge and felt fortunate to be given the work and be able to do it. You need something like that. Such a trauma is terribly damaging to the person. I was hit not only physically, but in other ways. I was depressed and very ill, but God came to me and let me help in his work.’
MP Judy Keall gave Pauline more jobs until it felt almost too much. Pauline became known as an advocate for people with disability, which she enjoyed. She liked trying to do new things. On the North Shore there were clubs for stroke, for arthritis, etc, and they too needed her help. Then she started counselling newly injured paraplegics at the Otara Spinal Unit, and it became another essential job.
It was like Pauline had been given as a special gift to help them. With her degree, her Tutor Sister training, and her own story:
- She could speak and teach with authority.
- She had her own deep perception of what people faced.
- She could speak from within the disability community.
- She had highly acceptable personal skills; Perhaps her Christian faith gave her a special poise and resilience.
To top all that, Pauline is able to laugh, frequently. That added to all her personal strengths, perhaps made her able to achieve more than many others could. In her leadership Pauline was not trying to get acclaim, but she did want to follow the Lord Jesus’ leading. Yes, it has been demanding in both time and energy, but she knew how she found the strength.
Pauline’s latest recognition came in July 2020 when she was announced in the New Year Honours list and awarded the MNZM, Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit. The award acknowledges the many untold hours of unpaid work and the highly respected community leadership that Pauline gave over so many years, energised, she gratefully recognises, by knowing it was a task given her by God when she desperately needed the will to carry on.
Beulah Wood, Interview with Pauline Stansfield 2020.
Stansfield, Pauline, Russia Changed my Life, Castle Publishing, Auckland, 2017
Photo: Pauline Stansfield at her investiture by Governor General Dame Patsy Reddy, https://gg.govt.nz/image-galleries/investiture-ceremony-auckland-21-july-2020