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Get Well Soon!
My (Un)Brilliant Career as a Nurse
By Kristy Chambers
University of Queensland PressCopyright © 2012 Kristy Chambers
All rights reserved.
In the Beginning
I first tried nursing on for size when I was 15 and went to the Goulburn Valley Base Hospital for two weeks of work experience. Everybody said nursing was a good idea – my parents, my teachers and the school careers advisor, none of whom were nurses.
'It's a great job!' they chorused. 'You'll never be unemployed! You can help people and see the world!'
I had my tonsils removed when I was seven and, as far as I knew, nurses were just the nice people who brought you ice-cream and jelly in hospital. What I thought was a nurse was actually a waitress, so when I said I'd give nursing a shot, I was in for a rude shock.
On my first work-experience day at the hospital there was ice-cream and jelly, just as I remembered. But there was also skin that looked and smelled like a rotten potato, adults wearing nappies, ulcers, pus, missing limbs and fingers, green plastic bowls full of poo, phlegm and vomit, tracheotomies and people crying. I wanted out. Nursing was shithouse.
I made it through the first week.
'Maybe you'd like to be a midwife? Work with babies?' one of the nurses suggested at the start of my second week.
'Yeah, maybe,' I agreed. Babies are cute and smell better than old people. So I went to the maternity ward for a day and they showed me a video of a woman giving birth. Her water broke, splashing all over the floor. Then she was down on all fours, mewing and moaning like a wounded animal while a baby's head came out of her, and I thought I might vomit. Now, not only did I not want to be a midwife or any other kind of nurse, I also no longer wanted to be female.
On my last day, the nurses asked me if I was going to be 'one of them', and I thought about it for half a second.
'Um, no offence,' I said, 'but there is no way on earth I would be a nurse ... I wouldn't mind being a doctor, though. Nobody tells them what to do.'
They all laughed, and said that was fair enough, and I felt a bit sorry for them. I was 15, and sure I was destined for bigger and better things.
The question that a lot of people like to ask is: 'How long have you been a nurse?'
Depending on the day, and how I'm feeling, I might just say, 'A couple of years now,' or I'll vent, 'A few years but it feels much, much longer.'
The next question is usually, 'And do you enjoy nursing?' and the response, again, hinges on my mood.
'Oh, it's pretty good, I guess,' I might say, or, 'I like the bit where I go on holidays.' Or, 'Right now I'm trying to figure out what else I can do with my life so I don't end up throwing myself in front of a train.'
And even when I badmouth the hell out of nursing, most people empathise and nod their heads, saying, 'Well, I could never do your job, that's for sure!'
'What do you do?' I ask, and they say things like, 'Oh, I'm an accountant,' or, 'I work in IT,' or, 'I'm a beautician and I wax people's swimsuit areas all day long.'
And I think, Shit, your job sounds awful, nursing's not that bad.
But some days, it really is.
I never had a strong inkling where a career was concerned. I only knew what I liked, and that there was no such thing as a job being a globe-travelling, booze-swilling, notebook-scribbling bourgeois pig, so I was screwed. I was going to have to marry well or work for a living, and since I didn't have a boyfriend, the wedding option seemed pretty unlikely. Employment beckoned, and I resented it greatly. I was born resentful.
I wandered around, lost, for a decade. An early attempt to study Creative Arts was hampered by my intolerance for the rampant wankery wrapped around it, so I spent some quality time on the dole, then worked a bunch of jobs I neither liked nor cared about before finally running away to London. After a couple of years spent in English pubs, as both an employee and a lush, I returned home just as spectacularly unqualified and work-shy as ever, but my most notable work-related achievement was now the time I headbutted Jude Law in the chest when I tripped in a Soho street on my way to pick up coffee for my boss.
My family collected me from the airport, and before we had even left the car park I wanted them to turn the car around; Australia seemed sleepy and boring and dry and brown. I was going to have to dig my way out of the hole I was in, as I had used up my allotted working visa, and because my grandparents had selfishly decided to be born in Australia instead of in Scotland like their parents had been, I was stuck. My future looked like a giant, gaping chasm of nothingness and I could barely stomach the thought of another shit job, so I was going to have to study something.
I narrowed it down to nursing or teaching, jobs with good prospects for overseas employment and which seemed meaningful enough not to drive me to despair. And while the thought of going back to 'school' at 26 filled me with dread, the fear of being trapped in menial-job purgatory forever was far greater. I took a cue from my younger brother, who was in the first year of his nursing degree and liked it well enough, put in a last-minute application and crossed my fingers. In retrospect, my brother may not have been the most fitting example for me to follow. He worked part-time in a nursing home and liked it, while I worked in a nursing home once and cried , then went home and drank a bottle of wine to try to forget about it. Still, the decision was made, and a few months later I found out that I had been accepted. I was going to be a motherfucking nurse. The 15-year-old me shook her head in disgust and called me a dildo, but she hadn't yet spent a year working in a supermarket and hating it with a passion, so I paid her no mind.
Having a sense of purpose was refreshing for me, and for my parents, and, for the first few months of study at least, I was excited. I went to all my lectures and tutorials and even though I felt very old, I also felt very superior to all the school leavers who didn't know shit about shit, and youthful in comparison to some of the other mature-age students, who looked older than the automobile. Actually using my brain, and using it for good instead of evil, was probably the best part of university for me, but before long my limited attention span crashed, and the novelty of education began to tarnish.
By the end of my first academically lacklustre year, I felt increasingly uneasy and worried that I had barked up the wrong tree by choosing nursing, because I could already tell I didn't much like where it was leading. I had just finished my first two-week placement in an oncology ward, time primarily spent showering old people and helping them off the toilet, and I hadn't loved it. At all. I thought about switching to a degree in education, now that I had a full year of study under my belt, because I quite liked the idea of being an English teacher and talking about books and writing and teaching kids how to spell. But I was all too aware that teenagers were arseholes, since I had been one myself, and that I would probably scream myself hoarse just trying to get anyone to listen to me, let alone learn anything. The positive of teaching was that I would get three months' holiday each year and I wouldn't have to see old people naked or deal, literally, with other people's shit. The negative was that I would have to be a teacher. So it became a matter of deciding who I least wanted to spend time with: teenagers or sick people.
As you can see, nursing was hardly my 'calling' in life, like it is for some people. Florence Nightingale didn't appear to me in a vision, and angels didn't fart into my ear at night, telling me to tend to the sick and diseased. I just decided that sick people trumped teenagers. Admittedly, that was well before I knew what 'melena' was and long before 'The Tampon', or else I would be a teacher right now.CHAPTER 2
In the second year of my degree, we began to drift away from the university campus and roam out into the nursing wilderness. The first year had been heavily theory based, with just two weeks in hospital, but the second year had a higher quota of practical placements, and mine began with a month in mental health. When I reported at seven am for my fortnight at the eating disorders clinic, everyone was lined up for the pre-breakfast Monday morning weigh-in. The girls were pretty, skeletal overachievers, giving me the side-eye and probably correctly calculating my Body Mass Index on sight. It was confronting in a lot of ways. I felt like a lard-arse in the company of some of the world's skinniest girls, and I was ashamed of myself for even making the comparison. They were super-thin because they were super-sick and I was healthy, not fat, but my own dieting ghosts were stirring.
'Jumper off please, Kate,' one of the nurses, Jenny, said in a bored tone to a girl further back in the line.
'But I'm freezing!' Kate whined, hugging herself and stamping her feet like she was stuck outside in a snowstorm instead of a centrally heated, carpeted corridor in a private hospital. She had a white feeding tube stuck up one nostril, fixed in position across her cheek with a strip of white tape, and you could see the bones in her face.
'Kate!' the nurse snapped, and Kate gave her a filthy look before she lifted the heavy woollen jumper over her head and threw it on the floor. A couple of the other girls sniggered.
'Well, if I get pneumonia and die it's going to be your fault!' Kate said bitterly.
'You're not getting out of weigh-in, Kate, so cut it out.'
Kate simmered down. When she finally stepped on the scale and it showed she had lost 0.74 kilograms – despite the night feeding and the therapy and all the drugs – she smiled at the nurse in a smug, self-satisfied way, like she had won something.
Maybe the first girl who starved herself to death got a trophy, or a sash.
The anorexics didn't have much time for the bulimics. Although there was a high degree of behavioural overlap, people generally seemed to pick a tribe and stick with it, like on Survivor.
'Bulimics are anorexics who need to try harder,' I heard one of the reed-thin girls say. She was pushing a metal stand around the ward, a bottle of milky liquid hanging upside down from it, the contents of which were slowly flowing down her naso-gastric tube. She was doing laps, trying to burn off the kilojoules before they could accumulate anywhere in her body. Her pyjama pants billowed out around her bony, bird-like legs.
My stomach rumbled. I had woken up late and hadn't had time for breakfast before running out of the house, which seemed an oversight in fairly poor taste considering my surroundings. I went on my morning tea-break early, and had a piece of toast and a cup of shitty instant coffee, and actually paid attention to the act of eating for a change. Eating was a reflex; something I did when my body asked for it, usually insistently and loudly until I complied, or automatically commanded in the presence of cake. Constantly overpowering such a primal urge seemed a superhuman feat, and I could understand how doing so made somebody feel powerful and in control. And even though throwing up was definitely not my idea of a good time, the bulimics at least got to have a bit of fun first, eating anything and everything before they did whatever ugly, cut-throat shit was necessary to get rid of it. I thought I would choose their tribe, if pressed.
It was an all-girl crew on the ward when I was there, and these girls were cranky and emotionally volatile, but starvation does that to a person, I guess. For the most part, they smoked like Chinese factories, drank coffee, cried, then used up any small amount of energy exercising, running off the food they were forced to eat and trying to avoid the people who were pissing them off, which was everybody, because they were so irritable, because they were starving. Such was the cycle of life in Anorexiaville. It seemed an utterly miserable place to live, and was depressing enough just to pass through as a detour on the way to the third year of my degree.
As a student you were usually assigned a 'preceptor', a nurse who, in theory, took you under their wing and guided you through the duration of your clinical placement. Sometimes you were welcomed with open arms by an enthusiastic mentor who was keen to pass on their skills and knowledge, and sometimes you were barely tolerated, adding to the workload as your undergraduate presence invariably did. Actions that would normally be performed in autopilot nurse mode had to be explained in tedious step-by-step detail, but at least there was another set of (somewhat clueless) hands to assist with the basic chores.
On my first day I trailed a couple of different nurses, getting an overview of the clinic's daily operations, helped make a few beds and did a lot of reading from thick medical encyclopaedias. I went home and paid more attention to the act of preparing and eating dinner than I had in years and realised that I loved food. The good, the bad, the takeaway, I loved it all.
On the second day I did the morning observations, measuring blood pressure with tiny cuffs meant for children, and locating weak pulses nestled beside jutting bones. Mid morning, a blood-curdling scream came from one of the rooms. A timid, red-headed girl with a history of horrific, lifelong sexual abuse, and resultant post-traumatic stress disorder, was curled up in a ball in the corner, rocking back and forth and crying her eyes out. Someone had taken a shit in her bed, a shocking surprise that completely capsized an already keeling emotional state. It was assumed that a psychiatric patient from the acute part of the hospital had wandered up to the unit and randomly chosen her bed as a toilet, but nobody knew for sure, and it didn't matter now, the damage was done. She was distraught and hysterical.
The nurses consoled her and I went to the linen room to get some new sheets for her bed. It was depressing not being able to do anything to really help, but what could anyone say or do to make it better? And I don't just mean the shit, I mean all of it.
You could take her grandfather out the back and shoot him for molesting her since she was born, I suppose – that seemed as good a place to start as any.
Spending time at the clinic was beneficial for me. From a career point of view, I knew I didn't have it in me to work in a place like that five days a week, so it was yet another area to add to my nursing exclusion list, but it also made me grateful for my health. I have had major issues with food in my lifetime, most acutely as a teenager, and most events and times in my life are automatically recalled in the context of my dress size or weight at the time, with almost Swiss precision, a dysfunctional blueprint set in my youth. I was a chubby ten-year-old, a dieting 13-year-old and a very thin 16year-old, even subsisting on green apples and black coffee for a time, but I never possessed the steely determination anorexia nervosa demands. My work ethic was, and still is, appalling, and anorexia was a full-time, thankless job, one with long days and restless nights, a very high rate of burnout, and a 10–20% chance of death. But I was not as far removed from the girls in the clinic as I would have liked to think, either. I still bullshitted myself that a diet would work and that happiness would set in when a magic number was shown on a set of bathroom scales. So I had some of the same hang-ups, perhaps, but luckily, I fell far short of the extreme examples before me. It was not inevitable that I would have early onset osteoporosis, or be rendered infertile. The hair on my head wasn't dull and falling out in clumps and the corners of my mouth didn't split painfully if I tried to smile. I didn't have hard calluses on the backs of my hands from shoving them down my throat 50 times a day, from throwing up water, and I didn't want to disappear. These girls were winning at losing, dying right in front of your eyes.
Of the many horrors I was exposed to within the walls of the Eating Disorder Unit, 'Group Time' was the worst for me, personally. It may not have been in the same life-threatening category as dangerously low sodium levels from abusing box after box of laxatives, or as unsettling and disturbing as a stranger defecating in your bed, but if it were possible to die from embarrassment, it was going to happen attending a group. And those suckers were compulsory, especially for a second-year nursing student, so the real nurses could go on a long coffee break and have some peace and quiet. I didn't begrudge them their personal space, until I actually went to a group, and from that point on I begrudged the shit out of them.
Alyssa was a brand-new psychologist, fresh off the boat from university, and she was in charge of most of the groups. She couldn't have been more than 22 and was perky as hell. I was 28, a full-time student and already jaded. We didn't have much in common. I didn't know what to expect when I was forced to attend Alyssa's first group, but I hoped I wouldn't have to do any gross 'getting to know you'-type activities. I followed all the girls into the room, and saw a box of kitchen items tipped over on the floor. There were empty jars, containers, saucepan lids and wooden spoons in a big pile. My heart sank.
Excerpted from Get Well Soon! by Kristy Chambers. Copyright © 2012 Kristy Chambers. Excerpted by permission of University of Queensland Press.
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Table of Contents
ContentsIn the Beginning,
The Ancient Miner,
Chris P Bacon,
Pass the Parcel,
Louis & Jeanette,
Things I Do Not Understand,