Talking to Anneke Slager is one of these great double whammies that come Our People’s way from time to time.
That she’s a native Netherlander incorporates her into our ever-growing list of this city’s potpourri of nationalities; add to that she’s nursed all her working life and with these wonderful caring people so much in the news over recent months, who could be more topical to hone in on?
Not that Anneke shares our enthusiasm. Inherently shy, she’s prefers to lurk in the shadows but there are others who see it differently. Her name’s come our way time and time again since her recent retirement as a child nurse specialist.
Anneke’s one of those treasures who’s devoted her 42-year career putting the needs of others many miles ahead of her own.
This low key Amsterdam-born woman is the type Florence Nightingale would have applauded for the compassion she’s heaped on others; something the nursing’s founder saw as the cornerstone of professional care.
The teenage Anneke’s career choice was implanted in her bloodline; her mother was a senior member of the profession.
Growing up in Holland’s official capital city (before anyone argues, The Hague’s its seat of government) her home was immediately behind the famous concert chamber, there wasn’t a canal in sight, the streets were her playground.
Tap into her memory of those days and it’s the annual Queen’s Birthday celebrations that tops her list.
“The monarch’s birthday is very big in the Netherlands, Dutch people are very patriotic to the Crown, always wear orange for these big events.
“I went back for King Willem-Alexander’s coronation five years ago and was interviewed by journalists who couldn’t believe I’d come all that way for it but I’ve always been a royalist.”
Anneke’s training was the equivalent of this country’s enrolled nurse, after the two-and-a-half years ward work that followed she thirsted for adventure.
“I was an only child so it was hard for my parents but I’d heard a lot about New Zealand because so many Dutch people came here after the war so in the end they gave me their blessing.”
On her 1980 arrival, Vogel’s bread founder Hans Klisser, a close friend of her knitwear traveller father, took her under his family’s wing.
Her first posting was Masterton where she had to acquire the maternity and district nursing know-how that hadn’t come her way in the Netherlands.
Maternity colleague Katie Williams became a close friend.
When she moved to Rotorua in 1982, Anneke visited for a holiday “and just stayed, I was blown away by the thermal activity, by the Māori people, how they lived and thought.”
Rotorua Hospital welcomed her to the geriatric unit.
“My English still wasn’t super duper, there was another Dutch girl there, the other nurses played a lot of ticks on us because we didn’t know what some things were which meant we had a lot of laughs.”
What wasn’t so funny was the morning the principal nurse paid a surprise ward visit.
“We were giving the patients their porridge in the day room, there was plenty left so we were helping ourselves which of course was against the rules, when the boss arrived one girl got such a fright she tipped hers all over the piano, it never played again.”
On a more serious note, Anneke found New Zealand’s hierarchical nursing system far less relaxed than in her homeland. “There we didn’t have all those stripes on our shoulders.”
From caring for the elderly, she moved to the surgical unit, then embraced her passion for paediatrics.
“I loved, it, love being with children, neonates. When you work with them you work with the whole family unit, it’s very important to see where these children come from, how they are supported.”
A number of her charges, born with birth defects, spent a lot of time in Auckland’s Starship Hospital.
“They are very important because they need personal attention not just medical care, with them it’s essential to see the whole picture, their siblings are important too.
“Gee, it’s hard when children are diagnosed with cancer, you just give them the love and support to stay positive, older ones tend to rebel because they can’t cope with being sick, going to Auckland for treatment when they want to go to their friends’ parties.”
Speaking Dutch led to her help caring for patients from that part of the globe. “That’s been interesting, one time I took a little girl who suffered a terrible injury falling off a tractor by air ambulance to Starship, it’s a privilege to help in a very sad time.”
Anneke’s final three nursing years were spent in public health’s children’s sector, the final months in the library-based health hub Te Aka Mauri.
Controversial as the move’s been, don’t expect to hear a world of criticism about it from Anneke. It’s recent Local Government New Zealand award is, she insists, unquestionably deserved.
“It’s the ideal place for children’s health care, unique, it’s been a privilege to have been a part of it.”
We press her on another topic that’s been to the fore this year, the industrial action nurses have taken.
“For me it’s not about the pay, it’s the lack of nurses, poor staffing levels. If one nurse goes home sick the remaining nurses are so busy the patients didn’t get the care they deserve, for me that’s dreadful, the patients are the most important thing.”
Retiring because she felt “the time was right”, Anneke’s working days are far from done.
In January she’s off to India to volunteer at the Raphael Ryder Cheshire International Centre for adults and children with mental disabilities and a range of illnesses, TB and leprosy included.
“My friend Mina Munro’s daughter Caroline Tapley is the New Zealand contact person, she was talking about this place one day and I said ‘I’ve always wanted to do something like this’.
“It’s going to be a huge privilege. Working with children is so precious. I don’t have any of my own so it’s been a real pleasure to care for other peoples’.”
Born: Amsterdam, 1953
Education: Amstel Academy Amsterdam “from primary through to high school”. St Johannes de Deo Training Hospital, Haarlem, Netherlands
Family: “My friends, I don’t have any family left.”
Interests: Children’s health, gardening. “Bluebell, my Welsh corgi”. Tramping. “I’ve done all the big South Island tracks, I’m into road biking now, I tried an electric bike the other day but fell off.” The Coffin Club. “I’ve helped with that a lot.” Music. “I love attending St Faith’s church with its Maori hymns.” Member Ka Pai Kai proving nourishing school lunches.
On Rotorua: “It’s an adventure playground with so many opportunities to do things.”
On her life: “It’s been an amazing rollercoaster.”
Personal philosophy: “Look after our children, they are our future.”
Photo: Stephen Parker/ Rotorua Post