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Finding purpose on the frontline
Pass it on
Pass it on
I'm reading
Finding purpose on the frontline
Pass it on
Pass it on
I'm reading
Finding purpose on the frontline
Pass it on
Pass it on
Articles
29 July 2020

Finding purpose on the frontline

Nurse Robbie is a Sydney-based nurse reminding us that purpose and self-care is essential to healthcare.

Written by Robbie Bedbrook

This story originally ran in issue # of Dumbo Feather

Discussed in this Story

“Do you have any questions before you go,” I ask Sophie and her mother. Sophie is eleven and has come to the respiratory clinic with a chesty cough and a sore throat. Our consult has taken twenty minutes, during which time I have assessed Sophie and am confident she is safe to go home and isolate until her results are ready.

“Just one,” Sophie says. “In the Hunger Games, did you prefer Peeta or Gale?” The question is ludicrous for the context we are in, and I love it. Minutes earlier, Sophie had been crying heavily as I explained and performed her test for COVID-19, a throat and nasal swab that for many is a scary and uncomfortable experience. Now though, she is okay. We’ve worked through her fear and she feels safe enough to talk like friends; we’re back on the topic of her favourite book.

Seeing Sophie, I am taken back to my own childhood. Becoming a nurse was never something I thought about. I was sure I was going to be a singer-songwriter, or if that somehow didn’t work out I would fall back on a career studying humpback whales in the wild. In many ways though, nursing was inevitable. I have severe haemophilia and much of my early life was marked with trips to hospital. Growing up was punctuated with moments of intense, acute pain, pain that now lives a chronic life deep in my joints. Illness can be a dehumanising experience and I am sad to say that many clinicians in my childhood contributed to this feeling, but almost never the nurses. How could this not have everything to do with who I wanted to be?

For the person who still occasionally finds his career choice unbelievable, nursing during a pandemic is altogether other-wordly. When Australia’s case numbers of COVID-19 began to climb, and lockdown was imminent, I felt an incredible yearning to become part of the frontline workforce, as many clinicians did. While continuing my job as a primary care nurse I took on a part-time secondment in a GP respiratory illness clinic, managing and treating people in the community with respiratory conditions, as well as testing for COVID-19.

I have had to use my whole nursing arsenal at the respiratory illness clinic. We are likely to only see a patient once so our assessment skills need to be incredibly thorough to ensure we aren’t missing serious illness. This can be challenging when your patient is a 3-month-old baby who is screaming louder than seems humanly possible, or a patient whose list of comorbidities is a novella. Our patients range from newborns to octogenarians, with mild colds to needing hospital admission. The work is heavy, fast-paced and incredibly rewarding.

Being a frontline worker has taken a toll on my overall health. I have become unwell three times already this year, each illness requiring a test. The personal protective equipment (PPE) required for each shift has wreaked havoc on my skin. It didn’t take long for the mask to begin wearing away the bridge of my nose, eventually splitting it open (I have since begun lining the mask with a cotton ball, lifesaver). I also developed dermatitis across my face, from hours of moist air being trapped behind the mask and face-shield. I remember looking at myself in the mirror one night after work. I had deep circles under my eyes, a giant red indent on my nose and stark white steroid cream across my face. I looked a complete mess, but all I felt was gratitude. These marks were signs of being well-resourced, and safe at work.

I also felt grateful because I had work, and purpose, and the opportunity to leave the house each day and interact with others. For most Australians, this was not the case. Many of my patients expressed fear not only about their health, but also about their future. The weight of uncertainty sat so heavily on their shoulders. These were the moments that I could feel the insidious roots of COVID-19 settling into our society, and the long-term economic and mental health ramifications that will germinate.

There is no one way to write about the experience of healthcare workers during a pandemic. This is an individual story, it’s my experience. The important thing is that we elevate the voices of all healthcare workers. What does it mean to work in a rural or remote community? What do those who work with marginalised groups need us to know about how the pandemic is affecting our most vulnerable? How has it felt to be a healthcare worker who has actually lost work, or not been able to join the frontline? We need to hear it all so we can learn how to best support our health workforce. We also need to hear it from the voices we haven’t necessarily heard before. The World Health Organisation (WHO) declared that 2020 is the International Year of the Nurse and Midwife; I am desperate to hear more nursing voices in the discourse of this pandemic.

Back in the room with Sophie, considering my response to her question about The Hunger Games, I find myself having a sudden and powerful moment of reckoning. I see myself as I was, the boy who spent so much time in and out of hospital, his constant pursuit of normalcy amidst the chaos of the healthcare system. Then I see myself now; the nurse I have been striving towards becoming, the nurse who reaches down into empathy to try to create safety out of trauma. By trying to heal others in the way I needed, and often didn’t experience, I am healing myself. It’s overwhelming.

Looking at Sophie, I respond somewhat conspiratorially: “I liked Gale to begin with but by the end I preferred Peeta. See what you think when you finish the books.”

All names and identifying details have been changed to protect patient confidentiality.

 

Robbie Bedbrook is a Registered Nurse with a passion for health promotion, social justice and primary health care. Read more from him here.

This story originally ran in issue # of Dumbo Feather

This story originally ran in issue # of Dumbo Feather

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