Monday, 19 March 2012

Nurses: worth their weight in gold!

I want to salute the victory in the dispute about pay and conditions by the Australian Nursing Federation Victoria Branch last week after a long fight and industrial action.  It was also a victory for women, since nursing is still a female dominated profession and I think that is why governments and hospital administrators believe they can order them around.

When Florence Nightingale set about taking nursing from the Dickensian image of gin soaked Sarah Gamps, to a modern profession she set a high standard.  Nurses learnt on the job, entering a rigid, almost military hierarchy, as humble probationers and, for a very fortunate few, ending as matron.  Promotion was hard earned, hours were long, rules were rigid, conformity was essential and there was no room for initiative.  Nurses were expected to give their lives to tending the sick: they lived in nurses' homes (on the hospital premises) and even there were subject to rules and regulations.  They might have met, and in later years, married doctors, but if they did, they could not continue to nurse.

Fortunately there have been many changes: hospital training has been replaced by university training, the hierarchy is less rigid and status is not marked by changes in uniform colour and style, nurses' homes have closed and their time off can be spent as they please, and with whom they please.  And the pay and conditions have improved greatly.

I have seen nursing from both sides.

As a child/young person, I spent more time than I wanted in hospital, but it was this experience that moulded my choice of career.  When I started to train at the Royal Children's Hospital, it was in the 'new' hospital in Parkville, the last word in modernity, replacing the old hospital I knew so well in Rathdown Street Carlton.  Now the newest version of the hospital has been opened!

As a young student nurse I 'lived in', meeting a group of other trainees, many of whom remain among my closest friends.  We worked, ate, lived together; we supported each other through the challenges of learning, dealing with doctors, the nursing hierarchy and patients.  We knew each other's boyfriends, we met each other's families, we went to parties together.  I know even now, if there was a crisis in the middle of the night, I could call on these women to help.

More recently I have been in hospital  to give birth and to have various surgical procedures and I have again encountered nurses caring for me.  Most of the hospital trained nurses of my generation have retired, but they have been replaced by a new generation of caring people, often carrying out highly technical procedures, as well as the old routine of bedpans, sick bowls, observation taking, and being there in the middle of the night when the pain might be bad, when spirits are low and a quiet reassuring word, and perhaps a cup of tea are the best medicine.

Sometimes I miss the old skills to make beds so they don't end up wrinkled, or adjust pillows to be comfortable, but I'm sure Florence Nightingale would still recognise these modern practitioners as worthy heirs to the profession she reformed.

Royal Children's Hospital, 1967

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