A Plunket nurse reports from the coalface of home visitation

by Sarah Catherall / 09 July, 2018

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Tracy Edwards.

Plunket nurse Tracy Edwards says often they are the only ones going into babies’ homes.

Tracy Edwards looks across from a cafe to her workplace – a simple wooden building bearing the distinctive Plunket logo on Wellington’s Park Rd. A blue fence running around the property was fundraised for and built by Plunket volunteers.

For seven years, the mother of three has been a part-time Plunket nurse on the Miramar peninsula. Her job is a mixed bag. For every waterfront mansion or leafy villa she visits in Seatoun or Miramar, there’s a state house or rental in Strathmore that is cold or damp.

One of 380 Plunket nurses, Edwards is at the coalface, visiting newborn babies from four weeks old, and seeing them on and off until they are about two and a half years old. It’s a role she believes in strongly. She sips her drink and swallows her food quietly before she speaks. “I love the families and the communities I work with. You can make a real difference.

“Often we’re the only ones going into the homes. A social worker or Family Start worker may go in. But we get a real insight into these family’s lives.”

In May, Edwards made a submission to the Government’s select committee on child poverty, sharing some of the more difficult cases she has come across: a Syrian refugee family who lived in a house with mould on the ceiling, where the cooking extractor fan discharged into a wardrobe in the bedroom, and their baby had been admitted to hospital with bronchiolitis; a house so cold that Edwards was unable to unwrap the newborn baby to weigh it; a Samoan family of five whose dinner was the fish the father caught off the peninsula; a Samoan family with an unflued gas heater as their only source of warmth, which they were too scared to use.

Along with weighing babies, the Plunket nurse has fought for heat pumps, helped rehouse families and put them in touch with the right agencies.

During each visit, she checks off a list from the Ministry of Health: anti-smoking, immunisations, safe sleeping, weight, length, hearing and vision checks.

One of the more common threats on her beat is that babies are often put to bed with their parents, raising the risk of Sudi (sudden unexpected death of infant). Not all parents are aware of the risks, and Edwards tries to find out why, and to let them know about safe sleeping, or to find a loan bassinet for those who need it.

“We do have a lot we cover. We don’t have the capacity for having more time dealing with social services. It needs to be a universal service, but some families need more intense support. At the moment, it’s a one-size-fits-all approach.

“I’ll go to a house in Karaka Bay and I’ll think, ‘Oh, I’d like to live here’, and then I’ll go to the Housing NZ flats and they’ll smell of urine and be full of broken glass. I’ve made the call to weigh babies with their clothes on, when there’s steam coming off your breath.”

Asked if she has ever felt in danger while advocating for babies, she says no, although she will sometimes call in other agencies, such as Oranga Tamariki – the Ministry for Children. “The vast majority of parents I see are keen to be the best parents they can be regardless of the difficult situations they may be in … There is no doubt that undue stress can have an adverse affect on all aspects of life, including parenting.”

Edwards has filled in a staff satisfaction survey organised by Plunket head office to gauge the pulse of the organisation since the restructure.

When Plunket was asked if it could release this to the Listener, a spokesperson said it was an internal document, not for public viewing. She says: “It came through clearly that our staff support our strategy and enjoy working at Plunket. We heard staff tell us they want to learn more about how Plunket’s strategy is going to be put into action, and we are working on that now.

“We also heard staff say they want some practical improvements to technology to make their jobs easier – and we’ve already made this a priority.”

This article was first published in the July 7, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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