In hospital this week after surgery, I learnt some things I already half knew. That I don’t cope well with pain, that time slows down in the middle of the night, (I swear I saw the hands of the clock in ICU move backwards sometime after 3am) and that nurses are a most precious resource, more valuable to our nation than iron ore and more deserving of recognition and celebration than our Test cricket team. Then I read the Herald’s warnings about a long-term recruitment crisis in nursing and was disturbed by the news that nurses were virtually priced out of certain areas of Sydney due to house prices. We ignore these warnings at our peril.
I admit to being a little infatuated with the nurses who have ministered to me during my 10 days in hospital. How else can you respond to someone who comforts you in the darkest hours of the night with something to take away your pain, and speaks to you with endearing affection and the most tender and compassionate entreaties.
It made me wonder from where this wellspring of compassion issues? Because whatever nation or culture our nurses come from, and those that serve us in our NSW hospitals come from everywhere and every culture, it was the one gift of many that they had in common.
Whether it was inherited with the great tradition of Middle Eastern hospitality that the Fatimas and Ayeshas brought to work with them or was part of the cultural respect and regard for seniors so critical to life in Asia and the subcontinent that the Manjus and Lees and Bonnies demonstrated, it was always present.
It was on show in the nurses from every background: Helen, the contract nurse from the UK; effervescent Chi from Japan and those special nurses with the lilting Irish accents, they all demonstrated the same gift. As did every born and bred Aussie: Elise, Amy, Emma and Mahla. They all showed the capacity for compassion and empathy and comforting that is yearned for by every patient in need of their care.
Aside from that compassion, they had other qualities in common. Our nurses are still overwhelmingly female and most are middle aged with an average age in the late 40s, except it seems for night staff who appear to be younger. All our nurses are also highly professional and well trained, practical and self-reliant. I suppose it’s hard not to be at 3.30am when a patient needs a cannula replaced or another has fallen out of bed and you are the only one there to fix it.
It was the resilience of nurses on the night shift that was especially inspiring.
Those of us who can remember the tiredness at seeing dawn’s first light after an all-night party or have remained awake through a long night travelling know nothing of the deep exhaustion and mind-numbing fatigue of several nights in a row of night shifts. It is no accident that sleep deprivation is deemed to be a form of torture. After watching my nurses for 10 days, I wonder at how they did it. How difficult it must have been to be gentle and considerate and unfailingly polite, but also to be accurate and accountable and aware when every cell of your being is calling out for sleep.
They will do it tonight and every night this week and year, no matter what the challenge. They may be young, relatively inexperienced and tired but they hold our system together in every hospital once the clock passes 10pm.
From my privileged position of a patient’s bed, my nurses also struck me as being overwhelmingly maternal, so many had children and spoke of them often. Further, they were light-hearted with a sense of the ridiculous which could be triggered by patients, doctors or visitors. Laughter often echoed around the ward and humour was never far from them. They were, by and large, a happy group of workers. This doesn’t mean they didn’t complain about transport woes or childcare costs or what they were paid but they seemed not to dwell on such things.
Then there was the humility that is a trademark of all nurses. How can you embrace a role in managing every bodily function, wound management and a host of intimate, human processes and not develop an endearing humility?
Night after night and through every daylight hour, our nurses bring these positive qualities to their workplaces and to our lives in every corner of Australia: from our vast city public hospitals, to private hospital wards and every nursing home and palliative care centre. And also to every remote rural multipurpose service centre and to every Flying Doctor Service flight, each Australian Defence Facility and to many GP clinics across Australia.
There were others who cared for me in hospital. The personal care attendants and the brilliant surgeon and physician but, for me, it was those who nursed me for whom I will always be most grateful.
Nurses deserve our thanks when they serve us, respect when they warn of looming shortages and justice when they advocate for salary increases. Without them, our lives, at what is often our lowest ebb, would be immeasurably poorer.
John Watkins is a former deputy premier of NSW and proud father of a nurse in the NSW public hospital system.
This article first appeared in the Canberra Times on 27 February 2018