A Cut Above
I commenced my General Nursing training twice. The first time was in 1972 when I was 17. All my life, as far back as I remembered I couldn’t wait to get “out there”. I wanted to leave school, leave home and live life to the fullest. My mother wouldn’t let me live life to the fullest at home; she said it gave her a headache.
It was during the 70s that I pursued my noble nursing dream. The world was losing its conservative grip on society and the people of the world were mandated to make love, not war. As I was frightened of doing either of these things I decided to enter the nursing workforce. Healing was virtuous, clean and non aggressive. I wanted to wear a pin striped starch uniform and a proud nursing cap that would place my hair in quarantine for the duration of any shifts worked. I wanted be absorbed by this image and live away from home. However, it took only a year to realise my disillusionment in nursing as it was not what I expected. I didn’t have time to actually talk to patients; I was busy taking orders from senior staff who, by the way, happened to be everyone else but me! The only things I made any significant difference to in those early days was the removal of brown crusts on the bottom of bed pans, emptying paper bags taped to patients’ bed side lockers that were stuffed with mucous filled tissues and emptying a never ending supply of malodorous linen bags. Unfortunately I only had enough stamina to complete one year of training at that time. I was not prepared for shift work, heavy labour or being the ultimate subordinate that was scrutinized more than a Catholic schoolgirl.
In 1973, the inevitable happened. I left nursing and pursued a career in office administration as a Girl Friday. I worked for a year in that position, and I loved the job. I learned to type, file, make coffee, answer phones, and babysit the bosses’ kids. But as we all know, life never stays the same, it changes. The economy took a dive in 1974 and my boss, whom I forged a very close friendship with, encouraged me to leave this little construction company and return to nursing.
So, to secure a career that avoided the recession bogeyman I recommenced nursing in 1974. Nursing sick people as a student nurse was an arduous and grueling experience. At 19 I still wasn’t prepared for the commitment required to assist my patients in their individual journeys through their often frightening experiences of health breakdowns. I convinced smokers to give up smoking, though I often ducked out to the fire stairs for a quick puff myself, I spoke to returned soldiers about their war experiences before anyone thought of post traumatic stress disorder, I spoke to widows who lost their war veteran husbands, I assisted in resuscitation emergencies, gave injections, did dressings, gave out medications and I reluctantly took inane orders from personally unfulfilled Nursing Sisters whom I thought should be respecting the first part of the people of the world’s mandate to make love.
I was tired, physically and emotionally. The 70s were moving along and I still hadn’t made my contribution to the make love not war ethic of the social revolution. I needed to figure a way to free myself up for revolutionary activities. Reflecting on my experiences as a student nurse I decided to apply to the Nurses’ Registration Board in my state for exemption of time required to complete my nursing training. I was successful in my application, but by the time I was notified of the time credited to me, I had already completed enough time to have finished my training.
This silver lining contained a cloud. Before I could complete my General Nursing Training I had to undertake what my colleagues and I dubbed “the forty days and forty nights term” in the operating theatre suite. There was no way out of this. I could not register as a nurse unless I completed forty shifts as a student nurse in this specialty field. So with a perturbed heart, I gritted my teeth and moved into this deified world of creationary reorganisation. It was not a very 70s place to go, it looked like a battlefield when it was in full swing.
I did not like this environment. The patients were neurotic at their best and inanimate at their worst. I was therefore at my most neutral which I thought was worse than my worst. I could not connect with the soul of the person. I felt like an apprentice in a butcher shop.
My first scouting experience whilst on my clinical rotation in theatre was for an amputation. Some inanimate person was having their leg removed. Perhaps they smoked too much. Perhaps they lacked knowledge of healthy lifestyle, and their health suffered through ignorance of diet or exercise. This whole thing, this procedure was dreadful and disgusting to me, but I only had to complete forty days of this to get my ticket to professional independence. My work would only be of my own choosing once I completed my term in this environment. So onwards I marched into the operating theatre to do as I was destined.
Scalpel, incision, blood trickling, dabbing wounds clear of serous visual obstructions, “sponge please nurse”, open sponge packets, use correct technique to hand sterile contents to scrubbed personnel, repeated cycles of this, ignoring surgical procedures to remove diseased leg, “yuk”, concentrating on designated scout tasks, wishing for a patient to comfort, to communicate with, to be comforted by, no, no, patients don’t comfort nurses. Concentrate, follow the procedure. Oh no, that sounds like an electric saw, not looking at the wound, woops, peeking at the wound, ewww, lots of blood and flesh, diathermy yuk!! Stinky burning flesh. Bzzzzzzzzzzz, bzzzzzzzzzzz. Don’t think about the leg being removed from the body. Voices in the distance, mumbling behind masks, eyes darting across the room. Oh, everyone is looking at me!! I try to avoid eye contact. No, no, I can’t. I have to. I can’t. I must. I won’t. “Nurse, hey, Scout Nurse. NURSE!! Yes, you. Here take the leg. Nurse, take the leg.” Oh God. I can’t do this. I don’t want to be a theatre nurse. I’m a people person, I make love not war. I know now what the old soldiers went through on the battlefields. I’m going to be sick. No, I’m not going to be sick.
I compose myself and refuse to be ushered any further into this surreal experience. “You need the leg removed? No problem. I will be back in a moment.” I walk out to the icy blue corridors of the operating theatre suite. “Orderly, I have some refuse that needs to be removed immediately from operating theatre number three. Yes, you’ll need a large bag. Thank you.”
It was at this moment I knew for sure I wanted to be a Mental Health Nurse.