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?