“I had a woman who thanked me for three days straight for an enema I gave her to relieve constipation.”
I am a registered nurse working at Southwest Healthcare in Warrnambool.
From an early age, I loved babies, obsessing over how adorable and lovable they were. Perhaps as the youngest child, I felt I missed out on having a baby sibling to care for.
My interest in nursing developed when I went to boarding school as a teenager. The school nurse there was a wonderfully warm lady, a mother figure to all the girls. She inspired me in my later school years to take on that caring role, taking the younger girls under my wing.
After school I initially started a medicinal chemistry degree. As I became an adult, I still tended to get a lot of childhood diseases, so my interest in immunology was partially personal. However, after a year of study I realized that that isolated lab work wasn’t for me – I wanted to interact and be with people. I decided to switch to nursing.
I thought about doing a double degree in nursing and midwifery, however decided I could always add midwifery later and started with a general nursing degree.
It was a busy three years: I juggled studies, placements and waitressing shifts. But I loved it.
Nursing work for me is full of instant gratifications: the immediate satisfaction of well-performed tasks like taking blood and putting in catheters. There’s nothing better than the feeling I get when another nurse says to me ‘I couldn’t get blood from that patient, can you try?’ – and I go and do it on the first try.
On the whole, my main driver in nursing is its rewarding nature. I’m a reward junkie!
And I get that part of me satisfied on a daily basis when I see the effect my work has on patients, feel the gratification of helping and making a difference in people’s lives.
And you know, it’s not just life or death stuff. I had a woman who thanked me for three days straight for an enema I gave her to relieve awful constipation!
At the end of the three years, I decided not to do an extra year of midwifery because I was keen to get out there and start working.
The university system helps nursing graduates get jobs. It’s a great program that lets you register your interest in specific hospitals and organizes applications and interviews. Most registered nurses get their first jobs this way.
Of course your marks and reports play a role in where you end up.
The prestigious metro hospitals are harder to get in, with the most applications. From there, it all filters out with people who miss out on the more popular placements going to smaller hospitals or rural regions.
There is also an un-acknowledged ranking of universities: a hierarchy. The more highly regarded unis give you a somewhat better chance at ending up at a more ‘prestigious’ workplace.
Austin Hospital, where I applied, had 1500 applications that, interviewing 800 and hiring about a 100. I was one of these new hires, so it was very exciting for me. Your first grad year is a 12 month contract; you are still learning and proving yourself – there is no commitment from the hospital to keep you on after that.
My first placement was in the geriatric evaluation management ward. The majority of patients were older people who came to us to learn how to walk and perform basic tasks again after broken hips and surgeries.
At first, I wasn’t super excited to be there, it wasn’t like the intense action-packed Emergency or Acute.
But it actually turned out to be a great intro to nursing: it was a gentle learning curve without too much pressure, so I had time to find my feet.
On a daily basis, I helped people get out of bed, whether on their own or with hoisting machines, helped them wash, dress, walk around with a walker, re-learn simple things like how to cook or tidy. I couldn’t do anything for them, we had to make sure the patients did things on their own.
So if it took someone 15 minutes to put on their socks, that’s how long it took!
As a nurse, it was hard to fight the desire to help and do things for people, but it really taught me patience and respect for the ageing process. You have to understand, as people age and lose their physical abilities, it frustrates them when people try to do tasks for them that they are still capable of doing. Growing old, people are grieving the loss of their identities, their independence.
Helping patients deal with that unspoken grief was something I could use my empathy for – and that was the rewarding aspect of the job for me.
Unfortunately, in that period I sustained a knee injury while helping a patient who lost his balance. Luckily at the time it happened, I filled out an incident report, so I was covered by WorkCover. But the downside was that I had to stay on the geriatric ward for the rest of my grad year.
At the time, it felt like a disaster, like the world was passing me by.
My peers all changed departments and were trying different things, getting new skills and experience, while I was stuck supervising people on walkers all year.
But in the grand scheme of things, it really wasn’t that big a deal – it was only a 6-month delay in my career, and fixing my knee took precedence.
After that year, I got to do a second grad year at the Olivia Newton-John hospital, with another two six-month placements. For my first placement, I applied to palliative care. Death intrigued me, perhaps because I’ve never really had to face it in my family. I wanted to know about it, although I was a bit apprehensive also.
In palliative, the biggest difference you make is not to the patient, but to their family.
A good nurse builds the relationship and guides the grieving family through the death of their loved one: she is there day after day, acting as their anchor and comfort.
You can’t give false hope.
You can’t try to present things in a positive light. You have to keep repeating; in as many words ‘This is him dying. This is happening.’ The family needs to keep hearing that, because they need to be prepared. But at the same time you need to be empathetic, understanding. It’s a delicate process.
My first week there was horrendous. I came home and cried every single night. So much human tragedy, young people dying of cancer, grieving families.
You’d witness family reactions, mothers dropping to the floor, crying. And you can’t break down with them! You need to be the strong one. Yet there’s only so many ways in which you can say ‘I’m sorry…’
No-one else cried on the ward, so I felt like I was the only one rushing to the toilet all the time to wipe away tears.
It was tough.
On a day-to-day basis, I performed checks on blood pressure, heart rate, oxygen saturation and general alertness – pretty standard tasks across all nursing areas.
However, the idea of these checks is to act if something is wrong. So in palliative, as the patient progress in their condition, you reduce and eventually stop these checks, as nothing more can be done for them.
My favourite job was getting people into the spa-bath.
It was a really high-tech spa-bath, with a side door that could go up and down and tilt, it had a hoist, it was like a Ferrari or spa-baths! For people in pain, it was amazing. They’d lie there for an hour, bubbles going and I loved seeing them be momentarily relieved of their sufferings.
Another rewarding task for me was doing pressure area care, which is basically regularly rolling people over so they don’t get bedsores. Unconscious, immobile patients need to be moved every few hours to ensure they are comfortable, clean and warm.
I’d brush their hair and ensure there were no crinkles in their sheets or pyjamas irritating them. It was hugely satisfying knowing you’ve provided that comfort that a patient can’t achieve themselves, but would be so agonized to be without.
In the end, as hard as it was dealing with the negative emotions caused by death, I found the rewarding aspects of working there far outweighed the painful ones.
I actually questioned myself as to whether I still wanted to be a midwife, or if palliative care was for me.
But my next placement on the acute medical ward reminded me how much happier I could be in my profession, when I got to see people recovering and going home, instead of dying.
Acute ward was much more high-action, fast pace placement, a lot of exciting things happening, you saw a lot of strange and stressful situations where you had to think and act fast.
In those 6 months I realized that when the pressure is on, my mind clears up.
That was a really great thing to learn about myself: that when it matters, I remember everything I know, I’m really switched on and efficient. Whereas if I go to a job interview where the pressure is on, I forget everything and fall apart!
Coming to the end of the palliative care stint, I applied to 2 different places to study midwifery.
In order to get into a midwifery post-grad, you first must get hired by a hospital, that takes you on as a student to work part time (unpaid) while you study. As with everything though, places are limited and you still have to go through competitive application processes.
I missed out on the places I wanted as they only hired 2-3 people out of thousands of applications, and it was really hard for me to show just how passionate I was about midwifery when I couldn’t demonstrate any practical proof: I didn’t do any relevant studies, nor had experience working in women’s health.
Having grown up in Warrnambool, moving back was always in the cards.
Although I always thought I’d establish my career in Melbourne first, now I saw an opportunity to further my career by moving back home earlier.
Through a family friend, I got in touch with a recruitment contact at the Warrnambool Hospital and expressed my desire to do midwifery here. The process wasn’t straightforward, and I spent a few months regularly contacting her to express my interest, with no results.
In the end, we moved down regardless, with no position secured, which was a bit of a risk.
I did get some casual shifts at the Hospital, working part-time, which was a nice break from the past hectic 5 years.
Once I started working, I again applied for the next intake for the midwifery post-grad position. This time I got an interview and after a few anxious weeks of waiting was told that I was accepted! I have now enrolled in the Federation University in Bendigo, due to start my course next year.
I have around 2 years of study ahead of me, while I’ll be working both my paid casual shifts and unpaid study shifts at the hospital.
Life will be hectic once again, and I’ll be taking a big pay-cut from where I am now – but it will be totally worth it. Once I am a registered nurse and midwife, I know I will have a world of opportunities open up to me.
Sometimes I wonder if I should’ve done the double degree from the start and became a qualified nurse and midwife from the start. An extra year then would’ve saved me $18K, a pay-cut, and all this stress that I’m going through now.
But then I’m grateful that I’ve had the three years where I’ve tried all these other different nursing areas to make sure that midwifery is definitely what I really want to do. So it’s more a financial regret than a career regret.
Over the last few years, my philosophy on midwifery has changed somewhat.
I still love babies, but my focus has moved on to the mothers. Through work, through my own family, I’ve seen how mothers self-sacrifice and neglect their own needs.
Women steel themselves for getting through a 30-hour labour, through two years of sleep deprivation, all this pain that can be both physical and emotional. They go through post-natal depression, or they struggle with breast feeding, or infection or a strange lump – but they don’t speak up, they don’t seek help because they’re so focused on the well-being of their baby.
And I now think that it’s really integral that women put themselves first, because if they aren’t well, how are they going to take care of their babies?
In the longer term, once I’ve done my hospital-based practice as midwife, I see my career evolving to become a community maternal health nurse, visiting young mothers in their homes. So once all the excitement has died down, the visitors are gone and the baby is a few months old, I would visit the mother to see how she is doing, what struggles she is going through and what help she potentially needs.
I think once I have children of my own, I will be better suited for such a role, with not only professional knowledge to share, but also personal life experience.
When I started, I didn’t think I could hack the shift work. You know, you get some shifts where you finish at 10pm and have to be back at work at 7am. You’re lucky to get 4-5 hours sleep. You forget to eat, you don’t see your partner for days. It’s rough.
But on the plus side, you then get shifts where you finish at 3pm, and you’ve got all this time in the day to go for a kayak down the river, catch up with friends. Or you have days off mid-week, which, believe me, is handy when you’re renovating your home and organizing trades! Then there is the occasional 4-day weekend to go away on a mini-break. It’s not all bad.
I love the work that I do, I still get my reward hits from it – from the daily interactions and connections, from helping people with practical things and with empathy.
I never want to stop treating people the way I’d like my mum, or my grandma to be treated. I know some nurses get jaded with time, and lose that empathy to a degree, but I really never want to lose that.
Yes, there are days when I’m running on empty and I just do my tasks and go home, but most days I give everything I’ve got in me before I leave work. And sometimes that’s rewarding and sometimes it’s just exhausting. But those days when you give it all – and it’s rewarding – those days are incredible and that’s what I live for.