“ED would be a bloodbath night after night.”
I’m a registered nurse working with aboriginal peoples in remote Australia.
When I had to fill in my university application, I wasn’t completely sure what I was going to do. I put down for both nursing and for a Bachelor of Arts. I was accepted to Griffith University Gold Coast for nursing and started uni in 1997. I have not looked back since.
I loved uni and did quite well. I chose to do my grad year at Longreach as both my grandparents lived in rural areas. I quite liked the idea of doing a rural placement. Little did I know that 17 years later I would still be out bush (despite promising my best friend to be back in a year!)
Prior to starting at Longreach, I worked in two nursing homes. I learnt a lot there and they were definitely good places to hone your basic nursing skills.
My graduate year at Longreach was not for the fainthearted.
Back then, there were still a lot of what I like to call “battle-axes” around and they were quite hard to work with. They expected absolute perfection in everything and were quite hard on young nurses.
It was tough to begin with and I had to deal with a lot of difficult situations with no support because that was how it was done in the old days. I was given heavy patient loads and told not to complain!
During my grad year, I rotated around several hospitals: Alpha, Barcalden, Aramac and Winton. Each place I met new people and learned new things. The enrolled nurses taught me how to take blood, cannulate and do the dressings. There was nobody else there to ask or to mentor me.
Without a nurse educator to sign off on your progress and competency, it was sink or swim.
Two of the hospitals I worked in had hospital-based ambulances, so even in my grad year, I was already going out on callouts. The first time, I was a nervous wreck.
It was the middle of the night and I was called to a lady who was unconscious after seizure. All the way there I kept saying to the driver, “You get the stretcher and I’ll get the oxygen”. He must’ve thought I was a complete nut. It was raining, and I couldn’t get into the gate. Eventually, I got into the house, a big old Queenslander.
I got down on the bed to see if I could get a response and in doing so knelt in a cold puddle of urine.
Somehow, that snapped me out of my shock and I was able to wake and stabilize her, and get her on the stretcher and back to the hospital safe and sound.
I would meet my first long-term boyfriend at Alpha and I ended up staying there for a couple of years.
During my time at Alpha hospital, I learnt to do pharmacy orders, store orders, rostering and accreditation activities.
I also did a lot of callouts, working on call. Some situations were quite unimaginable.
Things that even now I can’t believe happened, things you’d see in bad dream or a horror movie. Most of the stories really are too terrible to tell.
There was one incident where we had a heroin overdose, but both the doctor and the ambulance driver were too drunk to be of any use. It was up to me, a junior nurse, to stabilize the patient.
He kept having seizures and would periodically stop breathing.
We were 50kms from the hospital, but somehow I managed to keep him alive until we got there some hours after the initial call out, because the Dr and Driver were so intoxicated. Years later, a senior nurse who had been called by the family as she lived close by, told me that I saved that kid’s life that night.
Alcohol for many people in rural and remote Australia is a way of life. The doctors visiting from the city would never believe the cattle station owner or the jackaroo, or the council worker, when they would say “I drink half a carton each night during the week and a carton each day on the weekend, with some spirits thrown in”.
It is part of the culture and many people drink to excess.
During those few years I did a short stint as a level 2 at the Clermont Hospital – now bear in mind, I was still a fairly junior nurse.
One particular night we were evacuating a man ou who was very sick and almost unconscious. I had to put his catheter in. I only had one enrolled nurse working with me, and she was busy attending to the patients on the ward, while the Doctor was busy elsewhere.
I successfully put in the catheter, but then realized that the man’s foreskin was still stuck up.
I didn’t know what to do, so I rushed to the other nurse in panic, and asked for help, to which she replied “No way, I’m a lesbian, I’m not going near that thing”! Well, I was absolutely not about to tell the Doctor I had got the mans foreskin stuck either!
When I got back to the patient, the head of his penis was starting to turn a scary purple colour. I did the only thing I could think off, I grabbed some gloves and started pulling on his penis. After what seemed like forever, his foreskin rolled back into place, and I swear to God, as I looked up to him, the old man lifted his head from his deathbed to give me a very strange look!
The people in the towns became like family.
There, also, when the shifts were really bad , I could rely on the staff and townspeople to help with any debriefing or unwinding. Debriefing was certainly encouraged by upper management, but never practiced in real life in those days. When the time came to leave Queensland, I was sad to leave a lot of good friends behind.
But in 2004 it was time to move on, and I headed for Tennant Creek in the Northern Territory. What an adventure that turned out to be. I was going for three months and ended up staying for one year. We were on call all the time, and back then, there were only one nurse and one doctor on a late night shift.
It was before the Intervention and Close the Gap campaign, and before the strict alcohol restrictions were implemented.
ED would be a bloodbath night after night. We were so short staffed, we regularly worked 12 hour shifts, clocking up 20-30 hours overtime a fortnight.
I would take turns with other nurses flying people on the plane to Alice Springs, even though it often made me sick.
There were a lot of nightmare stories: the deaths, the suicides, the assaults and the chronic diseases. Broken bones and broken people.
There were good times too though, again the people in the town became like family and our presence made a tangible difference in saving and improving people’s lives there.
After 12 months there I headed off to Fitzroy Crossing in the Kimberley’s and had an absolute ball. I met a great bunch of nurses. We used to head to the river on our days off and cook fish and potatoes on the fire; it was a great community atmosphere.
Again, we worked on call with hospital-based ambulances and again, we saw some harrowing cases.
I remember one of the worst: a 4-year old burn victim. RFDS evacuated him to Perth, where he spent the next 12 months healing.
While I was in Fitzroy Crossing, I finished a grad certificate in applied health sciences, in rural and remote health. From there, I decided to return to Brisbane and see if after all the years in the outback, I’d be able to work in a city hospital.
I got a contract at the emergency department in the Royal Brisbane hospital.
It turned out to be a good job, which I enjoyed. But to be honest, after the challenges and the extreme injuries I encountered working remotely, I found city hospital with its abundance of nurses, doctors and support staff, to be quite easy.
Though I liked my job, and being close to my family, I hated the city life with its traffic and pollution, its restrictions. Eventually, I headed back out bush to Julia Creek, and that’s where I met Zac. After 12 months , we decided to make a go of it, even though I was already committed to go to Yuendumu, a remote aboriginal community in the Tanimi Desert. We said our temporary goodbye and headed off.
This was my first very remote aboriginal community, and it turned out a tough one.
Again, this was before the Intervention, and not long after low aromatic fuel came in. We often worked 15-18 hour days. The food available in the community was of such poor quality that I lost five kilos while there, and was getting sores that wouldn’t heal on my body. But I loved it.
I decided to head up to the Cape to be closer to Zach, and found work at Lockart River and Wujal Wujal Communities. It was a nice change from the desert, though it did rain a lot. But we had some great nurses and the food was certainly better.
Still, we faced some tough situations there.
We worked on call, and we would carry two way radios (as there was no mobile service) and a special tool to cut down people who had hung themselves.
We used to dread picking the tool up, hoping it would not be our turn to do the grisly task.
A lot of the suicides were a direct result of the dissemination of aboriginal culture, where young men, no more than teenagers, found themselves unable to pass traditionally into manhood, which was devastating for them.
Almost no family was spared by such death, making it impossible for its members to not be affected by grief, which in turn led to more suicides, propelling the vicious cycle on and on.
The impact on the communities and the culture was deep and deadly.
In the end, Zac and I decided that we would head back to Tennant Creek, where we could go back to on-call work and working in the ED, helping people with serious traumas and injuries. While living in Tennant Creek, I had my children Bailey and Temperance, and started my Masters Degree.
I got a job at the RFDS GP practice, which was great for a couple of years, but when the practice shut, I took a job at the aboriginal medical service as a chronic disease care coordinator. Working with a senior aboriginal health worker who I really got on with, I really felt like we had a big difference in people’s lives.
We would go out into the community and talk to the people.
We’d educate and help them manage chronic diseases, and how to utilize mainstream services. We would coordinate meetings with consultants in Alice Springs and help the families understand what was happening to their loved ones. We saved a lot of people from dying.
One case in the particular was a young 30-something lady with two children. The renal team decided she should be on ‘futile treatment’ – in other words, they would stop treatment and she was going to die without necessary dialysis.
I knew this patient had a diminished intellectual capacity, and my heart went out to her.
I couldn’t let it go, so I argued with everyone and anyone who would listen for help. I arranged for her to see the gertitrtion. We did all the necessary testing and he diagnosed her with a diminished intellectual capacity, which allowed me to submit the paper work for an emergency guardianship order.
Once this was in place, that allowed her to remain on dialysis. Once we organized proper care and a safe place for her to stay, she underwent all her treatments and surgeries and ended up working as a volunteer at the local politician’s office.
I loved the work, and the satisfaction being a nurse brought me.
But there were a lot of times I felt burnt out and verging on admitting defeat in the face of rampant drug and alcohol addiction, domestic violence, and lack of housing and support.
I felt a lot of hopelessness in myself and around me.
The smell of poverty is not something that can be breathed in lightly.
Hearing the story of a 6 year old that has been raped, or someone that has been beaten, or is dying or homeless or starving, from the community, from the family is a lot different to hearing it on the news.
Hearing it while standing in filth, breathing in the rotten garbage smell, the smell of overcrowding and unwashed bodies, seeing the mange-covered dogs and the children running around with sores and green snot dripping onto their top lips, is a lot different to hearing about it in the sterile environment of a hospital or a clinic.
But keeping things in perspective and setting small goals, I felt I was still making a difference, keeping people alive just a bit longer, and making terrible, hard lives just that little bit easier.
After 9 years in the community, I felt like I became an integral part of it.
I had my own skin name. I hardly needed anything translated, I could understand and even speak enough Walpri to get by. I learnt a lot of the people’s culture, and how to navigate its intricacies. I have been invited to pay my respects at ‘sorry camp’, a grieving process after someone’s passing – this experience was quite surreal.
But it was time to move to the city to ensure my children got a proper education, so we returned to Brisbane.
And while they adapted quite well, I found it harder.
I got a job at an aboriginal medical service in Woolloongabba. It was very different to what I was used to in remote areas, and I struggled getting used to it. Consequently, I took two remote placements on the NG lands Blackstone and Wingellina.
Out in the dessert, I feel at home and my spirit is happy and free.
My children’s education is paramount, and I’m willing to sacrifice everything to make sure they have the best life, which is why we continue to live in the city. These days, I have to balance my work life with my kids, and I don’t want work to take away precious time with them. But every now and then, I need to get out into the bush.
After 21 years of studying and practicing nursing, a Bachelors and a Masters, and many shorter courses, I am still learning new things and loving my work.
I have also started a Bachelor in Anthropology.
Through my profession, I have become fascinated with why people do the things they do. I am keen to learn more about the human condition and to challenge myself further with my nursing.
Nursing is hard work, and sometimes it doesn’t feel very rewarding.
It’s hard to talk about work with people who aren’t doctors and nurses without freaking them out with the gross or horrific details. Only other nurses can find humour in all the poo and vomit stories, as well as the scarier things – that’s our way of coping with it all, I guess. Needless to say, after many years on call, I’m not a huge fan of having my phone on me, much to my family and friends frustration!
But overall, it is an awesome job, and I love it.
I have no regrets in my career: I have done everything I ever wanted to, and there are still many more years to come of learning, caring and meeting beautiful people.