OPINION: Nursing can take you anywhere

2 February 2015

Just back from a trip to the UK and more than a little disheartened at the current state of Britain’s NHS, former chief nurse DR MARK JONES is reassured to find New Zealand’s younger generations are still inspired by traditional nursing values, and by the future opportunities and long-term rewards that nursing offers.

I recently happened upon an intriguingly titled book in a quaint second-hand bookstore: A complete system on nursing for male nurses.

Millicent Ashdown was inspired to pen this tome in 1934 by Miss Collins, principal matron of the Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service, as a fitting resource for the men in her charge. Essentially the book is a revamp of the previous Complete system of nursing but "with the exception that chapters dealing with nursing and diseases of women and children have been deleted" (no lady and kiddie bits for 1930's blokes in nursing to worry about then).

Anyhow, the book does give some of those great Nightingale-esque expected qualities of the nurse, reminding us "a real love of attending to the sick and helpless; a strong constitution, and an equitable temperament" are pretty much essential, and that "only those possessing these qualifications should attempt to train as nurses, as the life is a strenuous one". Moreover, “to those who are not fitted for it, many of the duties are revolting and therefore difficult to accomplish satisfactorily".

I found the book during some chilling-out time in Devonport after returning from visiting the frozen United Kingdom where the National Health Service seems to be crumbling to its knees, at least in England and Wales. I should imagine those UK nurses lining up to meet ambulances ramped outside their EDs and trying to care for those bedded (if they are lucky) along hospital corridors were stretching their love and temperaments to the limit. And no doubt they were finding the going pretty tough.

My own career has had its rough spots but, by and large, it is great to be a nurse. We have tough times here in New Zealand too, but yet still we have plenty of recruits for our profession. Nursing has taken me around the world to work in very diverse settings, and now I still use skills and experience gained over 30 years or so in roles I have loved.

Caring goes a long way

All this was still in the back of my mind when I chatted with a bright young checkout teller in Mitre 10 Albany the other day as I paid for my DIY supplies. It turned out she was on her summer break from AUT and she was shortly to commence the final year of her nursing degree. If her approach to caring matches her approach to customer service, she will go well. After the quizzical glance when I told her I was a nurse too, we had a good old chat about our profession. (It was quiet spell with nobody waiting!)

I eulogised about the engrained Western Australian Government’s strapline of “nursing can take you anywhere” (I had previously worked for the Western Australia health department from 2010 to 2014), with some illustrations from my own CV. Mitre 10’s ‘nurse-to-be’ was already planning a future in developing countries and “paying something back” – which was pretty good to hear, especially coming from someone in their early 20s.

So, I guess what Misses Ashdown and Collins had to say back in 1934 about what it takes to be a good nurse still holds today. Nurses worldwide still demonstrate their determination to provide decent care every day, even in the most adverse circumstances.

Kiwi nurses have recently been in Africa dealing with Ebola, and another spent her holidays on a mercy ship in the Indian Ocean. One of my favourite moments ever was facilitating the volunteering of an Australian NP on board a Sea Shepherd vessel taking on the Japanese whaling fleet. Yes, nursing can take you anywhere!

Seeing beyond adversity

I am reassured, having met the AUT student, to know that in the face of the inevitable adversity our profession offers, and the strenuous life envisaged by Millicent Ashdown, young men and women can see through this to the potential rewards on offer as we reach out to people to help maximise their optimum health.

Of course we still need policy makers to open up the full toolkit needed by 21st century nurses, knocking out the now-legendary barriers to practise for instance, but I am sure that from the hundreds of students returning from summer break we will see the dynamic leaders and practitioners of tomorrow emerge, along with those who decide that nursing in their local hospital or community is the best fit for their world – at least for now.

Welcome back to uni or poly, my fellow nurses; go well in your studies, hang in there and enjoy the world that awaits you. Wherever you end up and whatever you finally do with your life, you can rest assured that nursing will provide a bedrock that won’t fail you. Enjoy!