As Haematology and Oncology nurse Annabel McKay tells it, nursing is a natural extension of her personality and life experiences.
“As a child, I always had that nurturing instinct. I was the first to tend to a person in need or upset and had the desire to improve things for someone in distress.” She further explains that the loss of her grandparents, especially her grandmother at an early age, was a key motivator to pursue a career in healthcare.
“Despite receiving good clinical care, it is incredibly hard for those left behind. I want to do whatever I can as a clinician to ensure grieving families receive compassionate, dignified nursing care.
“From the beginning of my career, Oncology nursing was at the forefront of my choice of specialty. I believe we care for both patients and their families.
“If our patients do lose their courageous battle with illness, I hope the family remembers that the care provided was delivered with kindness and respect, honouring the wishes of their loved ones. Hopefully, this helps make an impossible loss more bearable.”
While audible in Annabel’s voice, it’s a conviction that is just as palpable through the recognition she has received from the nursing and broader community in recent years.
This includes being awarded the Pride of Australia Medal for Care and Compassion, Australian Graduate Nurse of the Year, and the Professor Catherine Turner Medal for Nursing Excellence. Annabel has also been nominated for this year’s Queensland Young Australian of the Year Award.
However, like anyone who has pursued a long-term career goal, Annabel, who works with Queensland healthcare provider Mater, and was on maternity leave when she spoke to the ANMJ, says there have been a few twists and turns along the way.
When Annabel first commenced her nursing studies at ACU’s nursing course through the inaugural Early Achievers Program in Brisbane, she was quickly challenged.
During an initial clinical laboratory class, Annabel, who lives and works with profound deafness, discovered that her hearing would prevent accurately hearing through a stethoscope.
“I felt physically unwell. The thought that my dream career couldn’t be possible was shattering,” Anabel says of her immediate reaction at the time. “I’d never really considered it as a disability before.”
“To have to say, ‘I’m deaf’ was a bit of a reality check.”
However, with the assistance of the disability support officer at the university, Annabel adopted strategies and tools that allowed her to flourish in a nursing environment.
While completing her studies, and later commencing work at Mater Private Hospital, Annabel worked in several different placements, including oncology, before eventually landing in the Intensive Care Unit for several years.
Despite finding her professional footing, a yearning for a different type of care persisted.
“[I] always wondered what happened to my patients after they left Intensive Care. I never really got that closure,” Annabel says.
“I did talk to my patients that were ventilated. I told them what we were doing, what the weather was like outside if their family was coming in. However, there were times when I didn’t know what they would want.
“I was often not their advocate, as they weren’t in a position to make their own medical decisions,” Annabel says, adding that the team was often seeking permission from next of kin or family members for the appropriate decision.
“I therefore couldn’t speak to their wishes, as I simply didn’t know them.”
Returning to the Oncology, Haematology and Palliative Care department, where she could be that advocate, helped satisfy those clinical interests, but it was not long before Annabel discovered a passion for education which now fills the bulk of her working week.
“I am often allocated students when working clinically,” she explains, adding, “I am able to model and demonstrate skills and care that allow for exceptional patient care.”
Annabel says her experiences with some students left her motivated to educate and shift their modes of thinking.
“Some students didn’t see the patient. They saw a task they were required to perform in order for them to move onto the next phase of their course.”
As a result of her work as a preceptor, Annabel started teaching casually in the ACU’s Clinical Skills Laboratory.
Realising that she had a passion for nursing education and could help improve the experience of clinical placements for students and those in their care, she moved into a permanent role at the University of Southern Queensland.
Currently working as an Academic Clinical Facilitator while maintaining ongoing duties as a Clinical Nurse at Mater, Annabel has also travelled to Cambodia several times as a nurse educator, taking donations and upskilling local staff.
While maintaining academic and clinical roles with a new baby sounds daunting, Annabel says it is beneficial for her on both fronts.
“I’m very fortunate to have been given both professional opportunities,” she says.
“Each role complements and strengthens the other. I am able to provide current evidence-based practice demonstrations to students and teach with the knowledge my skills are up to date and effective.
“In addition, understanding the importance of slowing down my clinical care and taking the extra time to explain procedures to patients. This ensures they have no knowledge deficits just as I would during class teaching.”
While Annabel appreciates her recent award recognitions, having arrived at a successful juggling act between clinical and teaching work, she is grateful to practice the vocation she desired when she first considered becoming a nurse years ago.
“After realising my hearing impairment could affect my practice, it would have been easier to change specialities, or in fact, professions altogether. But, I don’t think any other industry would have brought me the same joy as what nursing has.
“It is a real privilege to be trusted with the care of such inspirational people, who even on their worst days can find such peace and gratitude for life.”