IF there is a year in recent history to really thank brave nurses, this is it and Tuesday, May 12, is the day.
This year nurses across the country, and the world, have been hailed for their hard work on the frontline in the fight against COVID-19.
And International Nurses Day (this year, labelled International Year of the Nurse and Midwife by the World Health Organization) is a time to recognise the “invisible” work nurses do – especially in the face of a pandemic.
“Much of the work nurses do is invisible, we call this the hidden work of nursing and it is not well understood by the public,” says Calvary Public Hospital nurse Rachel Longhurst.
“This is partly our fault because we shield the community from the darkest elements of this job,” says Rachel, who is also an Intensive Care Unit/Coronary Care Unit educator.
“But I think we also undervalue ourselves much of the time [because] most nurses I know don’t want accolades, but it’s the lack of self-importance that makes these people so special.”
There is also a misconception around what nurses do, with a common one being that they’re a doctor’s handmaid, says Rachel.
“I hope most people never have to find out what we do, because if they do, it means they’re inside an ICU unit, and I don’t wish that upon anyone,” she says.
Rachel, 33, of Belconnen, became inspired to become a nurse in high school when two of her close relatives died, but before they did, she spent a lot of time with them in hospital, seeing the work done by nurses.
“They’re there through really vulnerable times, they’re helpful, they do incredibly personal and intimate things, and it’s incredible,” she says.
Rachel, who has been working in critical-care areas in the ACT for almost 14 years, is used to working under pressure and says nurses are trying hard to rise up against the coronavirus and prepare for all scenarios.
“PPE is not a new concept for us. We deal with many patients on a regular basis who are infectious, from influenza to tuberculosis,” she says.
“We are just amending our practice and training to meet recommendations related to COVID-19.”
However, it’s been disappointing for Rachel to see nurses in the community being treated poorly by members of the community for being in their uniform.
“[These were] people who had not yet been to work, or were not working in areas where patients with suspected COVID-19 have been,” she says.
“We understand people are scared. But please treat us with kindness and respect. You never know when you may need our help.”
But, on the more positive side, Rachel says they’ve also witnessed community spirit during this time, and the staff have had donations from local businesses such as chocolate, lunches and perfume.
However, essential worker or not, Rachel says herself and her colleagues are just doing their jobs, and it’s been hard for any person making adjustments in this situation, not just nurses.
“It’s been hard for my [two] young children, especially with changes to schooling and socialising,” she says.
“They are finding it difficult not being able to see our extended family, not being able to see their friends, and to understand why their parents are not staying home like many others.”
It’s the good days, though, that make it worth it for Rachel.
“[The days] in which I feel like I’ve made a difference to a patient, family member or staff member,” says Rachel, who is responsible for ongoing education and training of all nurses employed in the ICU, as well as maintaining advanced qualifications of all ICU staff.
“That might be seeing my transition staff care for their first ventilated patient on their own, ensuring a patient’s voice is advocated for or sitting with a family member to help them understand what is happening to their loved one.
“[It’s a] privilege working with patients and families at such a vulnerable time. It can be hard, but we love having our patients return to us afterward and show us how far they have come.
“I’m always amazed by how perceptive families can be of us, as nurses, at such a difficult time [too]. They say things like ‘I don’t know how you do this’, ‘I noticed you haven’t had a break yet’ and they repeatedly say ‘thank you’.”
But not every day can be a good day in ICU and Rachel says there can be many challenges.
“[Especially] those days in which you suffer some form of moral distress, or more often in my role, when you are talking to a staff member who is suffering from some form of moral distress,” she says.
“There’s a messy side of ICU nursing. There’s death and dying and dealing with people and their families at a vulnerable time.
“It’s hard to tell people that even though they did everything right their best wasn’t enough to save a life.”
The invisible parts of the job can be tough, which is why Rachel says it’s important to thank all nurses this International Nurses Day.