The Guardian July 17, 2002


I always dreamed of being a nurse

I always dreamed of being a nurse. Only the dreams of working-class 
girls in the '50s rarely translated into reality, as you didn't have much 
input into the decision of where you were headed in life.

In a brand new suburb in western Sydney, in the brand new high school, your 
future would be determined by the teachers, who would assign you to 
subjects according to what they felt life held for you.

One stream was for the girls who would finish school and continue with 
further education or training. Those girls were designated future nurses or 
teachers and were sent into maths, the sciences and languages.

And those girls, including myself, who were designated the future 
housewives of Australia ended up in home economics: with business 
practices, typing and shorthand filling out the curriculum so we would be 
able to work as secretaries until the right man came along.

Unfortunately, as working-class girl in Bankstown in the '50s I didn't even 
have the luxury of finishing school. My parents were struggling, we had a 
house to pay off and an unexpected younger sibling to bring up. Money 
became the overriding factor.

So, barely 15, I left school and headed into the city, to work as a 
secretary until the right man came along. And there ended my dream of ever 
becoming a nurse.

However, by the time I divorced in the early '90s, Australia had changed 
dramatically, and so had my options as a working woman.

Both my daughter and son had by that time trained as Enrolled Nurses, and 
seeing me 50 and unemployed, they encouraged me to go through the course as 
well.

During the year of training we were employed by a major teaching hospital 
and paid a basic wage of about $8.50 an hour. The course involved a seven-
week term in TAFE, seven weeks in the hospital, a further TAFE term and 
then the rest of the year rotating through different wards.

I had never worked so hard in my life.

The shifts we worked are among the most brutal in the workforce. An 
afternoon shift was 2.30 'til 11 pm. the morning shift started at 7.00. 
Most weeks we would have at least one "late/early", and occasionally two.

We often wouldn't finish until after 11, and I wouldn't get home until 
almost 12. If it had been a rough shift I perhaps wouldn't sleep until 1 
am. Then to start again at 7, I would have to be up at 5.45, meaning barely 
5 hours sleep.

Is there any other job where shifts only eight hours apart are considered 
normal hours? Are there any other workers who have five hours sleep and are 
then expected to help save lives the next day?

The physical load is enormous.

As soon as handover was done in the morning, we were running, running the 
whole eight hours. Along with the other staff I was regularly lifting 100 
kg patients from bed to chair to trolley, pushing wheelchairs and 
rearranging beds.

I loved it though, and quickly decided I wanted to continue on and become a 
Registered Nurse, which would require three years of university and one 
post-grad year in the hospital.

However when I sat down and worked out the financial aspect of furthering 
my career in nursing, I was confronted with a stark reality.

When I started the course I would have had 10 years left until I retired. 
If I spent three years full-time at university, the most I would be able to 
earn each year would be $15,000, about half what I would earn working full-
time. The four years at university at would cost me $10,000 in HECS.

So in just three years I would lose $55,000 in income.

Then, I checked the Award and learned that when I graduated and went to 
work as a Registered Nurse, I would only be paid $1 more an hour than would 
be as a fourth-year Enrolled Nurse.

How many years would I have to work just to get back to square one? And 
more importantly  why were Registered Nurses only being paid $14.50 an 
hour?

Nurses' pay, while not only disregarding the years of study and training 
required to enter this profession, does not provide the financial 
recognition that other workers are given for working in exceptional 
circumstances.

Our pay provides no allowance for the unpleasantness we endure. Daily we 
work cleaning up vomit, urine and faeces, the smell of which often leaves 
me running out onto the balcony gasping for air.

We receive no danger allowance for handling hazardous waste. The bodily 
fluids I clean up contain HIV, Hep A, B, and C, Giardia, Cryptosporidium, 
MRSA, among many others.

Rubber gloves are provided of course, so are gowns, masks and goggles. 
There are procedure manuals the size of the Sydney White Pages to cover 
every contingency concerning dangerous items and hazardous waste.

But the system is not foolproof, accidents are a daily part of nursing 
life.

How do you prevent a patient from throwing up over you unexpectedly? Or 
knocking a bedpan over your uniform? Or peeing over your shoe?

A couple of times I have had to shower and launder my uniform on the ward, 
while continuing my shift wearing surgical gowns.

Then there is the risk of catching every infection carried by your 
patients.

Fortunately in seven years of nursing the worst I have suffered is two 
weeks of Giardia and an MRSA infection in a paper cut I had on my finger. 
Some of my co-workers have not been so lucky.

Hepatitis A took out four nurses on a ward I once worked on. Another nurse 
came down with chicken pox, which she then passed on to her two children.

Another nurse I worked with spent three weeks in an isolation ward for 
Tuberculosis. He had been inoculated, and the effectiveness of the 
inoculation had been checked by the hospital as per procedure.

Ultimately it didn't save him, and didn't spare his wife and children from 
the fear of not knowing if they'd contracted TB as well, or the hardship 
they suffered while he was hospitalised.

No nurse that I have worked with has contracted HIV or Hepatitis C, but 
there are others in my profession who have. Nursing can be a fatal 
occupation.

No procedure manual, however thick, can protect a nurse from some of the 
physical dangers we face (unless the book itself is used as a weapon).

I was once accompanying a terminally ill patient for a stroll through the 
hospital grounds. He was well enough to walk, but he was demented due to 
the disease affecting his brain, so he tended to wander, and couldn't go by 
himself.

One hundred metres away from the ward, in the far corner of the hospital, 
he suddenly attacked me. Out of the blue, for no discernable reason.

I ran towards the ward, with him running after me screaming, "I'm going to 
kill you, you bitch". It was one of the most bizarre and frightening 
moments of my life.

I made it back just before he did, and I screamed at the other nurses to 
call security. As he burst through the doors I ran into the manager's 
office so I could lock myself in.

I didn't quite make it in time and a phone book slammed into the back of my 
head  he'd thrown it across the desk.

I sat cowering in that office for two minutes waiting for security to come 
and restrain him, and then for another 20 because I was a nervous wreck. My 
co-workers and manager were incredibly supportive and I was sent home for 
the rest of the shift.

The next day I came back to work, he was still there  the calm relaxed 
person I'd known him to be, with no memory of the day before.

A friend of mine caught in another incident was not so lucky. Working on a 
Psychiatric ward, a patient suddenly turned violent and she was bashed 
senseless in the 20 seconds it took for someone to come to her aid. She 
took a week off work for her physical injuries, and needed a further two 
for stress leave.

We thought she might transfer to another ward, or away from Psychiatric 
Nursing altogether but she didn't. Instead, she was very philosophical: "If 
it hadn't been me standing there it would have been someone else. Someone 
has to do it. And besides, I couldn't leave  I love this job."

And finally, who else during their working day is regularly dealing with 
people at their moment of death? Morticians work with bodies, Social 
Workers work with grieving families, Nurses must do both.

After eight years of nursing I have dealt with dozens of deaths. Some 
deaths I have witnessed were very peaceful, yet many others were not  
they were moments of pain and great distress.

Dealing with this year after year has had an untold affect on my own 
health; I would be lying if I did not say this has taken a great emotional 
toll on me.

So what's in it for me?

My first knowledge of the industrial wages system was gained working as a 
pay clerk in Pitt Street during the Menzies years. It wasn't until I became 
a nurse that I finally recognised the true value of my labour.

I sat incredulous when I heard the Queensland Health Minister saying that 
"nurses think they're too good to empty the chunder bucket". This idiot 
statement clearly demonstrates she has no idea of what nursing involves.

My story is not aimed to shock or distress, but to give a simple insight 
into a nurse's work and life.

In fact, this is a greatly sanitised version of my working life. I could 
recount a number of truly horrifying stories, of things that I have 
witnessed, things that have happened to me at work. Only other nurses would 
be able to listen to those stories, or could believe they were true.

Then again, only other nurses could truly understand that no other job in 
the world can bestow such satisfaction. That's why I love it, that's why I 
would never leave.

Yet job satisfaction alone is not enough to sustain us. Around Australia 
nurses are leaving the profession in their thousands. Hospitals are 
emptying, beds are closing and the sick are left lying in corridors because 
there are no longer enough nurses left to provide the care they need.

There is a solution to the problem that governments around Australia refuse 
to accept.

Money needs to be spent on Nurses. Not just millions, or tens of million of 
dollars, hundreds of millions. And it needs to be spent now if we are to 
have a health system in this country in the future.

It wouldn't matter if every Australian was covered by private health 
insurance, or if there was a private hospital in every suburb, or even if 
every drug needed was provided free by the pharmaceutical companies  
there will be no health care system if there are no nurses.

Even if the money was spent tomorrow, Australia must be prepared for at 
least six more years of nursing crisis before we see an upturn.

A full intake of nursing students entering university next year (and there 
has not been a full intake ever), would require three years of study, one 
year of post-grad training, and then a further two years of experience in a 
particular field to be designated a specialist.

Then, and only then will the thousands of vacant specialist nursing 
positions begin to fill.

And those university places will never be filled unless there is real 
financial incentive for young people to choose nursing as a career.

Nurses' pay must reflect their years of study, their skill and their 
professional status. It must compensate for the hardship and reduction of 
quality of life imposed by shiftwork.

It must recognise the extraordinary, dangerous and difficult circumstances 
under which they work, and that fact that every day they work under the 
pressure knowing that even one small accident may mean death of a patient.

Mr Carr, Mr Beattie, Mr Howard: What is a nurse worth?

Or is that a question that will only be answered when your life is in their 
hands?

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