You can’t save everyone, there are things that are going to go wrong

By Isabel Quinlan | @izzy_quinlan

Photo credit:  Luis Melendez

 A former Graduate Nurse shares her experiences about her first year on the job

The smell of antiseptic filled the room as the sliding doors opened, blowing in a draft of crisp air. The coffee grinder churned, squeaking shoes scurried across the floor, pagers beeped, a voice boomed over the intercom, the sound of voices, coughs and laboured breathing echoed around the room. In a place of unknown, the sound became a comfort, a way to escape the silence. 

She emerged from the school of people exiting the elevator, dressed head to toe in blue scrubs, her head bent in submission. She was smiling as she sat down but her body told another story. She sighed with relief, hunching forward as she rolled her ankles under the table. Despite her smile, she was fatigued. Her eyes are almost hidden beneath the dark circles surrounding them. She’d been working mornings, six days straight, eight hours a day. 

Placing her hands on the table, “fire away!” she said. 

Laura was 21-years-old when she gained a position as a Graduate Nurse at The Royal Melbourne Hospital, working in the 5HC general medicine ward. After finishing her studies at Australian Catholic University, she became one of a select group of graduates who scored a full-time position at the Royal Melbourne.  Of the 75,453 students who became registered nurses in Victoria in 2016, the Royal Melbourne offered between 112-120 full-time positions.

“You know, when I was a student I felt like I was really prepared with the pracs and the placements but now that I’m a nurse, I feel you learn a lot more on the job than you do in university,” she said.

Laura has an aura of compassion and concern about her, qualities only seen in certain people. You would never have known the weight of responsibility she carries on her petite shoulders, the responsibility of not only helping people in times of need but saving lives. 

“Uni prepares you well with theory and you know all the background content but probably not for the fact that you will be 100 per cent responsible for someone’s life, it’s very different content from being a student,” she said. 

 Going from being a student to a registered nurse is quite a leap, a terrifying thought when you realise you’ve got someone’s life in your hands. 

“I don’t think or feel that anyone’s ever going to be prepared for this massive responsibility, but I feel if universities send students out on more placements they would get accustomed to full-time work,” she said. 

But with great responsibility also comes mental burden. 

Laura recalls an incident in her first year right at the end of a long shift when one of her patients was unwell, she sensed something wasn’t right. She stayed up the entire night unable to sleep, stressing about this patient and returned the next day to find the individual was on the pathway to sepsis, a life-threatening complication caused by infection. This led to the patient, who was being treated for multiple health issues, to be closely monitored.  

“I was like holy shit what could I have done differently, should I have said something? I had a feeling but you know not everything is perfect. You can’t save everyone, there are things that are going to go wrong and you can do absolutely nothing about it,” Laura said. 

But it’s not only their patients which nurses have to be concerned with, they also contend with the threat of physical and verbal abuse from patients and their families. As a young face in the workplace, Laura said there is also a stigma which surrounds being a graduate nurse.  

“It’s a huge knock to the ego and confidence when someone says ‘Can I have a real nurse?’ you know you think to yourself, I went to uni for three years and I worked really hard to be in this position that I’m in and I can do it just as good as they can,” she said.

“But a lot of the time, patients and their families are fantastic and are really grateful for what you do”.

When you transition from a student to working full-time, it’s inevitable for changes to occur. Going from part-time to full-time work, working 10 shifts every fortnight increases the amount of pressure they face. Waking up on bitter mornings when your windscreen is covered in frost and you breath turns to vapour or starting work in the middle of the night is the reality for nurses. The never-ending cycle of shift work. First time nurses enter this strange world from the comfort of tertiary education and like Alice in Wonderland, you have to find yourself, regain balance. 

“It’s very stressful and tiring, I feel like when you come out of uni you have a false sense of security, you feel really confident, you feel you know everything, but when you get put into the workforce it’s very different, it’s physically and mentally draining,” Laura said.

Nursing is like a roller coaster ride. Skipping breaks, holding on to go to the toilet, being on your feet all day not sitting down, dealing with sometimes abusive patients and families, cleaning up after patients, dealing with the pressure of knowing everything and seeing things which can’t go unseen is the brutal reality of the job. 

“Nurses in general can seem quite detached and not being very sensitive to people’s feelings but I guess it’s a coping mechanism, if you don’t laugh, you cry and in time you learn to let go,” she said. 

“It’s not for everybody that’s for sure, but I volunteered for this and I’m going to try my best to give the best care I can”.

Catalyst has been the student publication of RMIT University since 1944. We may be older than your parents but we’re still going strong!

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