Each year on 12 May, we celebrate International Nurses’ Day.
Over the past two years the landscape that nurses and midwives work in worldwide has vastly changed from the impact of COVID-19.
On both these days and beyond, we recognise the courageousness of nurses and midwives and their dedication to their patients in the face of adversity.
We also recognise that governments can no longer continue to underinvest in health and must step up to protect, support and invest in nurses and midwives while strengthening health systems.
The International Council of Nurses IND have set 2022’s theme as Nurses: A Voice to Lead – Invest in nursing and respect rights to secure global health and is encouraging the promotion of nursing work and the fight for nurses’ rights to a safe working environment, decent wages and full participation in decision-making.
This year ANMJ speaks with an aged care nurse and a midwife about what the past two years have been like, and how they have maintained their resilience and supported each other.
Nurses stepping up to the challenge during the COVID-19 pandemic
Tasmanian aged care RN Irene McInerney knew it was coming. After watching nursing homes in New South Wales and Victoria battle COVID-19 outbreaks during various waves of the pandemic, she feared the deadly virus would inevitably penetrate her facility once interstate borders opened up late last year.
It became reality in early February, with 26 residents and more than a dozen staff contracting COVID-19 following outbreaks at the aged care home.
“That’s pretty full on when you’re the only registered nurse on night shift with three carers,” Irene says. “You feel like you’re running a mini-hospital.”
Aged care workers, already plagued by years of chronic understaffing, have faced numerous challenges during the pandemic, including navigating new infection control procedures and supporting residents amid rolling social restrictions and limited visitation rights.
When COVID-hit, Irene says the facility was left playing catch up. For example, nurses weren’t given Rapid Antigen Tests (RATs) soon enough and promised extra staff arrived 10 days later, after the worst had passed.
“Survival mode is what I called it. You just did your best and tried to support the residents,” she says.
During outbreaks, residents isolated in their rooms.
“A subtle type of depression crept into some of the residents,” Irene reveals.
“You’re trying to support them and give them hope that it’s not going to be like this forever.”
Irene tried to adapt as best she could, spending an extra minute or two with residents or making phone calls to their loved ones to maintain connection. She also brought in carnations, which she grows herself, for residents returning from hospital.
Nevertheless, delivering care remains problematic in the new COVID normal, where gowns and masks are mandatory.
“The residents have trouble understanding us because they can’t see our faces and lips, so communication is key,” Irene says.
While resident care is paramount, staff too have struggled during the pandemic, making self-care more important than ever.
To support colleagues, Irene makes a point of acknowledging their efforts and offers assistance with residents whenever possible. Her self-care philosophy, ‘do what makes you happy’, steered her towards camping or gardening on her days off.
“We’ve probably got to do ourselves a favour and try not to overthink things too much and just know we did the best job we could.”
Irene, the face of the ANMF’s latest campaign for legislated aged care ratios, has worked in the sector for decades.
“Each shift I do I feel like I make a difference to the older people,” she says.
“I just feel like I’ve got that acumen or the kind of caring and patience which that side of nursing takes. I think it is underestimated how well you have to get aged care, because these people are vulnerable.”
Sadly, though, Irene has witnessed the sector deteriorate year after year, with the erosion of trained staff, excessive workloads and poor pay crippling the ability of aged care workers to deliver quality patient-centred care.
“Some staff are literally crying during shifts and I can admit to being one of them.”
Understaffing compelled Irene to work night shifts to carry out “the nursing she signed up for” and do her job properly. Yet, as the only RN on afternoons and nights charged with caring for 65 residents, many with complex needs, delivering care often means choosing who receives assistance and who must wait.
“It makes me really angry. You go home not wanting to take things from work away with you, but you almost feel like you have to debrief on a daily basis because you’re so frustrated and angry because you’re rushing around all the time apologising to residents for being late to so many things.
“We need the staff and we need more pay to attract more people into the industry.
“What are you waiting for? Get on and improve things because we’re all drowning. How many really good nurses are going to leave the industry before they finally hear us.”
Irene, who celebrates International Nurses’ Day each year, believes the entire profession, especially aged care nurses, deserves enormous recognition for working through the pandemic.
On 12 May, she says she feels like walking up the street, wearing a big badge, to let people know that there are nurses and carers like herself that genuinely care about the elderly.
“It’s much tougher times, and more than ever, we’ve just got to be proud of our efforts. The community says we are one of the most trusted professions there are. We want the government to say, ‘hey those nurses are struggling, they need more support and staff, what can we do for you?”