The Nurse in the lift

Have you ever sat at someone’s funeral and listened the eulogy’s and thought, I never knew that about that person! At my paternal grandfathers funeral I learnt he was a Ringer. Ringer is the Australian name given for someone who rides horses and rounds up live stock, or also known as a stockman, muster or cowboy. Yeeha!

My grandfather was a cowboy. I found this fascinating. This is the old man who once sat in my dads lounge room suffering early stages of dementia. On one Christmas Day, whilst waiting for a beer to be served, he snorted up his phlegm, accompanied by a sound that can only be described as cringe worthy, and leant over the side of the cream leather lounge chair he sat on and spat on dads blue woollen carpet because his mind was failing him. That same man was once a cowboy riding horses rounding up cattle. A fit young whip cracking man with a lifetime ahead of him. A man with his own hopes and dreams. A man who would become a father, my dads father.

My dad the next step in my carnivorous blood line, was a butcher who became a meat inspector for the meatworks and after retirement continued to be a consultant part-time in such matters re meat exports from Australia.

Dad learnt about the internal structures of animals as part of his training, the physiology of cattle and sheep and other exported animals for food consumption. So I guess that’s where my bloodline and fascination with science and anatomy and physiology came.

Biology was one of my favourite subjects at school. In my final senior school year then known in the early 80’s as year 12 in which students completed their Higher School Certificate (HSC) I studied Biology and Human Development and Society.

I remember as a younger child going to visit my cowboy grandfather in the Royal Melbourne Hospital whose cowboy days were long behind him and years of smoking had caught up with him. I was with one of my parents and as we got in the lift, so did a nurse.

Image from internet

She has a similar uniform to this nurse. Hers was light blue with a fine white stripe and a white starched apron pinned on at the chest and a nurses watch. She was blonde, young and not as neat looking as this brunette nurse. I recall standing next to my dad and looking at this nurse with admiration. I don’t think I at that point even knew what a nurse did. But I liked how she looked and when I grew up, I wanted to be her, dressed just like her!

That nurse in the lift was probably 10-15 years older than me and most likely still alive today and has no idea what impact she had on me, an impressionable young girl, the young girl she shared her lift with. An encounter that lasted a mere minute or so. It fascinates me how we have these moments in life, and they are just that, moments in time, how in a moment a person can have a lifelong lasting impression on someone.

That was the very first inkling I had that I wanted to be a nurse over 40 years later I can still recall the image of that nurse to the forefront of my mind. As I became a young adolescent I would find myself fascinated by medical documentaries. I found the workings of the human body a fascinating machine.

Take the human heart an incredible pump system of our body for example – The cardiovascular system. It keeps us alive by pumping oxygen and nutrients around our body keeping our trillions of cells alive.

The heart has four chambers: the left and right atrium and the thicker muscular left and right ventricles.

Oxygenated blood enters the heart through a big vein from the lungs called the pulmonary vein, draining into the left atrium which then drains down into the left ventricle during diastole ( when the heart muscle is at rest), as the left venticle fills and sensors pressure being applied to its muscular walls it contracts ( systole), pumping blood out of the heart through the aortic valve into the Aorta. The Aorta is the largest artery in the human body that divides into smaller vessels called arteries which branch of and become known as arterioles, eventually becoming capillaries. Capillaries carry blood to every cell in the body dropping off oxygen and nutrients by a process of diffusion, picks up carbon dioxide and other waste products, continues toward the heart via the venules which become the veins under low pressure and back into the right atrium via the superior vena cava. The right atrium fills with the deoxygenated blood drains into the right ventricle where it’s then pumped out of the heart into the pulmonary artery to the lungs where oxygen is picked up and taken back into the left atrium and so the pumping cycle continues.

Fun facts : the Pulmonary Artery is the only artery in the human body that carries deoxygenated blood and the Pulmonary Vein is the only vein in the body that carries oxygenated blood.

Arteries carry oxygenated blood away from the heart, veins carry deoxygenated blood to the heart with the exception of the above mentioned.

Hey, you never know when that just may pop up on a trivia question! And now, you’ll know the answer😉.

A well run machine is our cardiovascular system. How can someone not be amazed by this I ask! And Mother Nature designed it. I find it absolutely incredible. I could go on and on about how a sperm and egg carry the DNA code for every cell and every organ in our body when combined it can creat a human machine. A human being. Simply bloody amazing. As a young teenager I would watch more and more television documentaries on the human body. I loved it and 40 years later I still do. I’ve never stopped enjoying learning more and more about this amazing machine called the human body. The endocrine system, responsible for producing all the chemicals our bodies need, the nervous system allowing us to move and think….. it just goes on.

I’ve been a Registered Nurse for 35 years and a Registered Midwife for almost 29 years.

In the early high school years I had no idea what I wanted to do for a career. I have been listening to the audio book ‘Grit, the power of passion and perseverance ‘ by Angela Duckworth. She says in her book in chapter 6, ‘People whose jobs match their personal interest are in general happier with their lives as a whole’. The author goes on to say, ‘science has to say, passion for your work is a little bit of discovery, followed by a lot of development and then a lifetime of deepening’. She explains, childhood is far to early to know what we want to be when we grow up. Longitudinal studies following thousands of people across time has shown that most people only begin to gravitate towards certain vocational interests and away from others around middle school. Interests are triggered by the interaction of the outside world. The initial interest of discovery usually goes unnoticed. In other words when you are just started to get interested in something you may not even notice what’s happening. What follows the initial period of interest is a much lengthier proactive interest development. The initial interest just being triggered again and again and again. For example, me repeatedly watching medical documentaries over several years is what triggered my interest in the human body. Positive feedback makes us feel confident happy and secure. So our friends and families supporting us makes us more likely to keep pursuing that interest.

I think unknowingly the documentaries were building on my interest and passion of the human body and that long ago moment with the nurse in the lift, were all coming together.

When choosing my year 11 and 12 subjects I had my sights set on nursing. I believe I have displayed grit and my support networks believing in me and supporting me all led to this. My year 12 timetable didn’t allow both biology and human development and society to be studied due to clashes. To do biology I had to do Australian history because that’s the only subject I could slot into that elective. My mum could see that Australian History wasn’t going to get me into nursing. A science subject, maths and English were prerequisites for nursing.

The more science subjects I did, the greater the chance of me being accepted. Mum arranged for me to enrol in a night school course for the subject Human Development and Society at University High School, a well respected public school. No student had ever done this before in HSC at my local government high school. But there were no rules saying I couldn’t when mum challenged the principal on our choice.

My day school year 12 subjects were , Biology, English, General Maths and Legal Studies. My night school subject was Human Development and Society. Most night school students were mature age students so I felt extremely awkward attending these classes. It was so out of my comfort zone but the good thing was mum let Harry my boyfriend drive me to University High night school and that was the only time during the week in year twelve I was allowed to see him, so it was a good incentive to go to night class.

When death comes knocking at your door on some idle Tuesday afternoon.

Human Development and Society was a by-product of Wednesday afternoons with Harry. It was more about seeing Harry than attending class often arriving late to class and I felt the annoyance of the teacher glare as I entered. But when I was there I really enjoyed learning the content. Especially about theories of play and human behaviour.

I wasn’t what was called a ‘bright’ student. I was tutored on weekends in biology and overall really had to study hard. I was tutored in Maths and missed going to the last ever Skyhooks concert because I had to have maths tutoring. That’s one regret I have in life. I didn’t do that well in maths failing and also failing biology by 1 mark. I was devastated. But hallelujah, I passed, you guessed it, Human Development and Society.

I had gone from being in the advanced maths class in year nine to failing maths in year 12. In year 9 there was myself and another girl Suzzane in the whole class of advanced maths. Every other student was male. Year 9 is a big year of hormones and there was no way I was going to ask questions in maths class and draw attention to myself amongst all those smart boys and look like the dumb girl. So I slipped behind and by the time I got to year 12, I couldn’t catch up what foundation of senior school maths I’d lost. But I am proud of myself I worked really really hard and improvement so much but just not enough.

So still with my mind on getting into nursing I re enrolled to repeat year 12 Biology at night school with a view of repeating year 12 maths the following year.

I wrote application letters off to all the Melbourne public training hospitals and applied at the newly introduced university degree courses in nursing. I hadn’t been accepted into the university courses so whilst I waited to see if I was to get an interview for the hospital trainee courses, mum insisted I started plan B.

In February 1984 and 18, after completing my high school certificate, I started a tertiary course in legal secretarial studies. Shorthand was still used but coming to an end.

Like all languages there was variations to shorthand. I was taught Pitman 2000 shorthand. Which at the time was the most popular.

Shorthand became unnecessary with the emergence of the digital age. A Legal Secretary role involved such responsibilities as to sit in on legal meetings with lawyers and as they spoke, took the minutes of the meeting in shorthand, then to type them up to be distributed, or the lawyer dictated verbally a letter to a client to his legal secretary. The title today would most likely be, Personal Assistant (PA) or Legal Assistant (LA). The secretary would then from her shorthand scroll type the letter, thus the skill of needing to know how to construct a formal letter .

An example of typewriter I used when learning touch typing

These letters were literally typed on a typewriter. The speed of your typing and accuracy was what gave you advantage re employability. We were tested on this. How fast we could touch type several paragraphs without looking at the keys, eyes focused on the written paper or shorthand note, with a score of words per minutes as a measure of proficiency. Computers in offices where being phased in and word processing in its infancy and being discussed in class as a likely new age technology that would replace the typewriter over the next few years.

I sat in class thinking, are we learning an outdated system but for tertiary colleges this was still the course offered in this field. When I was in secondary school in the late 70’s early 80’s computer studies had just been introduced as an elective subject. Computers where bulky and clunky and families were starting to buy this new household item. I akin it to when colour tv’s were starting to become a household item. They were new and it was exciting. My parents bought a Hewlett-Packard computer, it was precious and we weren’t allowed to touch it for sometime in case we ruined it by pressing the wrong buttons and messing up the motherboard. That was something we feared because none of us knew how to fix it!!!

The course taught touch typing and how to construct a formal business letter. We learnt legal terminology and studied law such as contract law, business law and various other aspects of law. I loved the law but overall a legal secretary wasn’t a career I wanted to pursue. I had applied for nursing and was waiting acceptance into that in which I was within a few months.

At school I floated from the idea of interior design to health sciences to medico-legal law. To this day I still think medico-legal law would have been fascinating to study. I love medicine and I love law and the blend would of been my absolute heaven. Nurses still had the option of hospital training albeit it was being phased out for university training.

Although I never completed the secretarial course education is never wasted education I believe. In the months I studied the secretarial course I learnt, some basics in law, pitman 2000 shorthand, letter writing and touch typing and made a lifetime friend. I never perfected the shorthand to be proficient at it but it’s a skill that’s now been replaced by technology, however the letter writing has been an invaluable skill as has the ability to touch type, especially now keyboards are a tool we use in our modern everyday. Learning about the law, and contracts was fascinating to me and opened my eyes to be aware of what I’m signing when entering into any contract no matter how minor, even a months free trial of something is a contract with many facets.

The letters of reply to my nursing applications came back in the mail. I opened the first one and read, your application has been successful! I jumped for joy. Yelled out to mum and as I was re reading the letter out loud realised I’d misread it and it said unsuccessful! My application had been unsuccessful. Can you now hear that music in your head in sitcom shows where the music slows and stops. Yep that. Every letter that came back said the same thing, bar one hospital. They offered me an interview. They said my mark in maths was enough and that I had been accepted for interview on the grounds of passing my Human Development and Society.

The interview was before a panel of 5 female interviewers followed by a maths aptitude test, then composing an essay on why you wanted to do study nursing. I wrote about my fascination of medical documentaries and a bunch of other stuff and was accepted for the August 1983 intake for general nursing. I was ecstatic. I was in, and thank goodness mum had come into bat for me against the school and encouraged and helped me with my night school application, and Harry who drove me there each Wednesday night for my 4 hour class ( or what sneakily sometimes was a 2 hour class, shhhhh I never told mum), and then drove me home!

My 18th birthday present from my parents.My nurses watch. It meant so much to me. I felt so grateful to have been accepted into nursing. I wore that watch with pride. I still have it today. The sentimental value is priceless.

The first 6 weeks was in intensive schooling program on physiology and anatomy, the systems of the body and general nursing care. We wore the daggiest brown lace up shoes, tan tights, aqua blue dresses and red capes. I drove a 1976 cream corolla that had brown vinyl seats and no air conditioning. On hot days prior to leaving I dunked my dress under the cold tap, put it on wet and this was my way of staying cool when having to wear stockings on a hot summers day in a non air-conditioned vinyl seated car. By the time I got to work it was dry.

After the 6 weeks we were sent out onto the wards and allocated 6 patients to care for. This was the scariest knowing that I had 6 people I couldn’t afford to make mistakes with. Their lives were in my hands. During these training years I saw some amazing situations. Nursing was very different in the 80’s. There was no keyhole surgery.

During the last year of my general nurse training the infamous 1986, 50 day nurses and midwives strike occurred. ‘Victorian nurses began their longest strike after the failure of repeated talks with the health minister David White who was committed to reducing the classification and pay of almost half of Victoria’s nurses

In1986, when members of RANF voted To strike we thought the strike would last no longer than 3 days. All Victorian nurses walked off the wards with only skeleton staff to care for patients. No nurse really wanted the negotiations to come to this. Especially me. I was young, a 20-year-old girl in the infancy of working life and the adult world. Unions, government, wages and conditions bargaining was all new to me. Previous to this strike nurses were seen as having no voice. It was a female dominated profession. Women were not known for standing up for their rights

The pay rate was being threatened to be cut, their was no legislative limitation on the amount of patients a nurse could be allocated to care for during her shift. The Sister-in-charge allocated on the care needs of the patient (Registered Nurses RN’s we’re still referred to as Sisters) . If the patient needed frequent observation there were less patients given to you but as a student nurse you could be allocated up to 10-15 patients which required bathing or showering and it all was expected to be done on your morning shift plus other nursing care duties.

Nurses were seen as carers who saw this as their calling and going back to the Florence Nightingale days. But medicine had moved on from there and medical advances meant more and more responsibility was being given to nurses along with more acuity of patients on the wards. There was no respect or acknowledgement by government given to the knowledge a nurse required to adequately care for the patients.

Previous attempts by nurses to negotiate with the government had failed. Nurses were inexperienced in doing this and those negotiating were older nurses that were not used to standing up for themselves. Irene Bolger was elected to take over. She was younger and ready for the fight. When the initial walk out had little impact and 3 days had passed we knew we were in for the long fight. I don’t think any nurse thought it would last 50 days. To be honest if they were told this could last 50 when voting I think the ballet would have been a resounding no. But we were to deep into this and we needed to forge forwards and do whatever it took.

I think we all knew that times were changing. Nursing was now a University degree lifting the profile of nursing as a profession and taking away the Florence Nightingale image. As nurses I think we all knew we had to stand our ground and not be told to be quiet and submissive. It was women standing up to the government and saying we are educated working women who have an important role to play in the healthcare workforce. We deserve recognition with legislative working conditions and pay rates to match.

We all took our turn on the Pickett lines, we had to stick this out and dig our heels in for future women and nurses in the workforce. We needed to make this count for generations to follow and show women were equal in the workforce and that despite being a female dominated workforce nursing still deserved equal conditions and respect as for similar occupations of responsibility elsewhere. We deserved equal standing to paramedics, radiographers, pharmacist, and other allied health workers. It was a hard and long battle but in the end an agreement was met. Never in the history of Nursing has there ever been a strike of its kind. It was history in the making. Families financially struggled for the benefit of the future workforce. Nurses were generally supported but some criticised nurses saying they left patients for dead, that they were irresponsible and this was hard to hear. We were also fighting for better conditions for patients. By securing legislation on patient nurse ratios meant nurses had more time to give better care to each individual. Nursing was governed by states. It wasn’t until January 2010 state nurse awards became under a federal award giving equal pay and conditions for all Australian nurses. As a profession compared to others, Nurses still earn significantly less. After the effect this strike had on nurses it’s unlikely any such strike will happen again. The average midwife is 50 years old so there are many nurses whom still remain in the current workforce who were involved in the 1986 strike.

This strike threatened to delay my finishing date of my training. The training rules stipulated that if a student was absent from training for greater than 6 weeks the student was required to drop back to the next group 3 months behind. This would have been disappointing had this happened to me. I was desperate to qualify. The union agreed that student nurses, once they had been on strike for 6 weeks could return to work. I return to work a week before the strike was over.

My exams were looming. Hospital trained nurses sat 2 exams. A 3 hour surgical exam and a 3 hour medical exam. Three years of study came down to two 3 hour exams. I felt like a walking medical encyclopaedia walking into those exams.

I passed well and commenced a graduate nurse program rotating through various general and specialist wards throughout the hospital.

I was now not student Lucy but Sister (Sr.)Lucy. As nursing became more and more recognised as a profession and males started entering what was a traditionally female workforce the name of a Sister changed to Registered Nurse. RN Lucy. Nurses gradings were introduced to recognise experience and levels of seniority and for applying pay rates in recognition of this.

I have looked after thousands of patients seen incredible complexity of illnesses and medical conditions and cared for a multitude of different people from different cultures and backgrounds. I could spend weeks telling you about my experiences but here are a few of those that I have remembered years on….

*A WW1 veteran undergoing an amputation. The generations between the life experiences of WW1 veteran and a naive 18-year-old girl and what I learnt from him.

* an 18-year-old male with electrical burns inflicted by working on a meter box and 18 year old girl, me, giving a bed bath. I’m not sure who was more embarrassed.

*a women who was shot in the face sustaining horrific injuries with a pre incident photograph stuck on the wall near her bed and what that man took away from her. One of the many incidences of domestic violence I would see

* a lady who had an eye pecked out by a rooster as a child and having to clean her false eye when she popped it out and handed it to me, and caring for her massive wounds that eventually took her life in her later years. Witnessing one of many deaths of the terminally ill.

* a young 13-year-old on children’s ward with osteomyelitis and a 14-year-old boy who had suffered encephalitis becoming brain damaged after a routine live vaccination. Fortunately they have been replaced by vaccines containing antigens. .

* a 45-year-old patient going into cardiac arrest 45 mins post operation from a fractured femur repair dying from a fat embolism.

* a shooting victim with a bullet hole to the side of his head in emergency resuscitation room and a man who was shot by a friend in an altercation that came in the next day and said sorry and his friend forgave him like it was business as usual

The list goes on…… Over the years and working in major tertiary training hospitals all my career, as I mentioned, I have seen some incredibly interesting medical cases and met some intriguing people. I have witness many advances in medical treatments over the past 35 years. So interesting is human nature, the human mind and body. Nursing isn’t just about the disease it’s about treating and caring for the whole person and their family where necessary. I have never stopped learning. Nursing has layers of aspects. It’s an occupation where you can specialise and develop expertise in systems of the body or technical skills and knowledge of certain disease processes or methods of treatment and best practice.

After a few years of looking after many ill general nursing patients and witnessing the decline of many to their death I felt I needed a different direction in nursing. I had been working in an acute surgical ward, High Dependency bowel ward and also vascular ward and decided to apply for midwifery. I had applied and my name was on the waiting list of applicants because that’s how it worked back in the late 80’s. When your application got to the top of the pile you received notification to come for an interview. When I was 8 months pregnant I received a letter for an interview. I so badly wanted to be selected for this course that I went to the interview fully aware they would wonder why I bothered when so heavily pregnant. I was about to go into labour any time and become the mum for the first time. I was well prepared for the interview panels reaction. After the interview where I showed my determination and support I had to do the course I received a letter saying I would be interviewed again for the next intake. When Rupert was six months old I was re interviewed. My enthusiasm had not wained. I commenced my midwifery training and have never looked back. Caring for women creating a new life has been rewarding. Watching a baby come into this world and take its first breath can still bring tears of joy to my eyes.

29 years later and having 2 more children whilst working in the emergency department for 11 years I still remain working as a midwife.

I have witnessed numerous births both vaginal and cesarean, had to tell women their baby has died in utero, sat with women through miscarriages and assisted in theatre during terminations of pregnancy. I am pro rights of the woman. I was pleased when women no longer required the signature of their husbands to a have tubal sterilisation. I believe women have the right to choose if they want children or not. I’ve given injections to women to stimulate ovulation for IVF or other fertility treatments.

For the past 16 years I have specialised in caring for women living with a disability during pregnancy and preparing for parenting.   I received a scholarship to study women and disabilities and have taken part in a Department of Health and Human Services project focusing on women living with disabilities and accessing maternity services, participated in training videos and co written articles on best practice for health professionals caring for women with a disability, been on various focus groups and clinical working groups, participated in various media interviews on women with disabilities, families and children. I have contributed to a PhD Dissertation on disability services and access, a Melbourne University study on reproductive and sexual rights of non English speaking immigrant women with disabilities and thesis written by student undertaking a Masters of Public Health on people with disability accessing maternity care at a particular institution. I have presented at various professional conferences on the subject and won an award for working in diversity. I continue my work with a view to improving access and better healthcare to women living with disabilities with an aim of providing best birth outcomes for women and babies and helping to enable women with disabilities to parent as independently as possible, through adequate planning and community linkages .

In Angela Duckworth’s book she discusses natural talent and strivers and how strivers can be just as successful as naturals or even more so due to the ability to show grit. I would classify myself as a striver. I studied hard, I didn’t necessarily get the top marks in my groups but I was determined and persisted and have made a career out of nursing through perseverance and passion. I genuinely want the best outcome for the patients. I get a sense of satisfaction caring for the more vulnerable in society. I believe everyone deserves health care and they have the right to comprehensive and tailored health care. We as a society have the responsibility to provide care to those who don’t know how to ask or are unable to advocate for themselves as much as the wealthy and educated. There should be no barrier to obtaining healthcare within our public system. John Howard introduced Medicare in 1984 which enabled every Australian universal healthcare which would be one of Australia’s proudest moments of governing.

I wonder if in my old age people will see a photo of me and be surprised that this wrinkled old women once looked young or that I was a nurse for thirty-five plus years. I most likely have many more years ahead where my career will just be something someone mentions about sometime in the future. A blimp in my lifetime.

But if I leave you with one thought then it’s you never know how a moments encounter can impact on someone’s life. Always try to give your best and be kind. I wonder from time to time what ever became of the nurse in the lift.


Love Lucy x

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