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Interview: advocate Pauline Stansfield

Flagstaff Team

Left a paraplegic in a crash while travelling behind the Iron Curtain in the summer of 1969, Pauline Stansfield endured primitive treatment and a long recovery before working her way back to independence. Now, she’s been honoured for her work on behalf of others with disabilities. She talks to Helen Vause.

Determined campaigner… Pauline Stansfield says New Zealand had to catch up on access issues for disabled people

She woke up a bright, energetic young woman, excited to be setting off with a tour group through Russia and a little bit apprehensive about the unknowns of travelling in that country.

Later that morning, Pauline Stansfield had become a paraplegic, lying in a hospital in small town.

The year was 1969, and the tour bus the adventurous young Kiwi nurse was travelling in had flipped somewhere on the very rough road from Novgorod to Moscow. She’d landed, badly injured, halfway out the back window.

That day changed her life forever. “It was all pretty unlucky, for sure,” Stansfield reflects with a vibrant smile in her wheelchair more than 50 years later.

Hers has been a full life, underpinned by faith, determination and positivity.

As she has kept her own wheels turning, Stansfield has taken many others with her, working tirelessly as an advocate and supporter for people with disabilities.

Her work hasn’t gone unnoticed. Stansfield, who now lives in Belmont, is still basking in the glow of her New Year Honour for her services to people with disabilities, as she shares her story with the Flagstaff.

Before her life was so radically changed, Stansfield had been working as a nurse in London, following in the footsteps of many thousands of venturous young Kiwis. With a good degree and nursing qualifications under her belt, she felt equipped to head off into the world and explore as much of it as she could.

First stop was the UK in the late 60s, and a nursing job, but the motivation was to fund the next adventure and make exciting plans with travelling buddies, using London and her job as her base.

The travels through Russia were part of a month-long itinerary, starting in Europe. But Russia was the unknown and, says Stansfield, right from first encounters at the border it was “a bit scary but exciting”.

After the tour bus accident on 10 June 1969, Stansfield’s story was for the next few years one of hospitals, rehab and pain – putting every ounce of herself into getting to a better place, where she could move forward with a full life lived from her wheelchair.

She recounted that early part of her recovery in detail in the book she published in 2017, Russia Changed my Life.

Revisiting the first nightmarish days in Vyshny Volochek Hospital, Stansfield paints a terrifying picture of painful procedures carried out without anaesthetics, of ancient equipment, filth, primitive techniques and terrible food.

Then there was the language problem and the awareness that she was far better qualified than those taking care of her. Trying not to show her feelings and make matters worse, was part of the daily struggle:

“I was very nervous about Russian emergency care. I was far more terrified of that than of being a paraplegic for the rest of my life.”

In those first weeks in the Russian hospital, the horror of it all was tempered by visits from friends, then family, British Embassy staff and a constant flow of letters from a wide circle, anxiously willing her on.

Media at home and in the UK reported on her progress. The Evening Post in Wellington reported: “A 29-year-old New Zealand girl, Pauline Stansfield, lies in a hospital in a small Russian town, three hundred miles east of Moscow, with a double fracture of the spine, brain concussion, internal injuries and eight fractured ribs…” One Yorkshire reporter wrote: “Pauline, who was away from home and kindred, was fortunate to have retained her spirit and sense of humour.”

But as the weeks rolled on in her hospital bed, Stansfield was also developing some of the complications of paraplegia, most of which, she says, would have been preventable with modern nursing techniques of the time.

She was plagued by ghastly sores and respiratory problems, as she was left to lie on her back day and night for the first two months. For a time, she was getting worse rather than better.

Her care team were kind, Stansfield recalls. Grumbling carried its own risk, but all concerned knew she’d be better off back in England.

In the UK, she was a patient at the famed Stoke Mandeville Hospital in Aylesbury, where she’d spend the next eight months in recovery and rehabilitation. She was mighty pleased to be out of Russia, but there were plenty of tears through gruelling physio and building the strengths and skills that would soon see her living independently again – and earning her living.

At the same time there was the reality of what sort of work she would be able to do and how she would get around.

The latter problem was solved with driving lessons at the hospital in a little three-wheel vehicle that was supplied free to patients like Stansfield, who was soon to be motoring around London in it.

“Invaluable,” she recalls. At the same time, as she struggled with the relentless physio and exercise, she was on the path to her new career as a nursing tutor.

And even before she had her wings to leave the hospital and get back into living life ‘on the outside’, she was seconded to a nursing school to give her first class: “Care of the immobilised patient.”

Stansfield worked again in a UK hospital, but took the chance to come home in 1973 to a job teaching senior nurses at the Auckland School of Nursing. A year later, she moved to teach at Wellington Polytechnic, and pulled together enough money to get a mortgage for her first house.

She was happy to be home but found the commitment in this country to supporting a user-friendly environment for people with disability was far behind what she’d experienced in the UK.

“There was really nothing for us at that time. No grants for equipment were available and access issues were really hopeless.”

Three jobs she applied for fell through because there were access issues. So for her it was a natural progression to turn her skills and grit to advocacy.

“My first act was writing a letter to the Herald asking why there were no grants for equipment for disabled people. That led to my first media interview here.”

She put huge energy into the North Shore Disabled Persons Assembly (DPA), and for 11 years was secretary of the organisation, working tirelessly for a much better deal.

“There was a great need for DPAs on the Shore and our meetings were very popular, many people arriving who needed one or more problems solved.”

Stansfield led the charge on access issues for disabled people. Week after week she was out in her wheelchair with an able-bodied companion to complete a wide-ranging survey of access to buildings and walkways across the North Shore.

“What we needed to look at was how to get into a building, how to get around in that building and how to get out. Then we had to look at parking. It doesn’t sound a lot, but back then it was really hopeless. It was just terribly difficult for people like me to get around.

“To shop in the Glenfield Mall, I would have to first park near the shops upstairs then load up my wheelchair and drive around to the bottom level and start all over again if something I needed was on that level. It was just exhausting.”

Stansfield also volunteered at the Otara Spinal Unit for several years. “It was helping others who were facing what I’d faced. You have to adapt to what you’ve got, but that’s the very thing no one wants to do. They want life to go back again to what it was the day before yesterday. But they have to learn how to have a go.”

In the recent New Year Honours, Stansfield was made a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to people with disabilities. Just last year, she was thrilled to see her sister Briar Gordon in the honours lists for her services to law. “And now it’s the two of us. Who would have thought it?”

This article originally appeared in the 14 February edition of the Devonport FlagstaffDownload PDF.