My hospital family – the perspective of a “lifer” in the public hospital system

By: Australian College of Nursing (ACN)

Kylie Miller and a much-loved nurse, the late Vanessa Cameron, during her treatment at Bairnsdale Regional Health Service.

Former journalist Kylie Miller was recently a patient at the Bairnsdale Regional Health Service. She has written a powerful piece thanking the hospital staff for the exceptional level of care and support they provided during her hospital stay.

I sit here writing, coffee in hand, listening to the hum of the ward around me, the busy short-stay unit in a regional Victorian hospital.

The machine beside me whirrs quietly as it pumps a life-saving blood product into a vein close to my heart. My regular nurse briefs a student on hospital procedures while a senior doctor discusses an emergency case somewhere down the corridor. I know his voice well. He’s already popped by to ask if I’d like to adopt one of his ducks to replace the one I’ve just lost.

Busy public hospitals — and country hospitals in particular — often cop a bad rap for the services they are equipped to provide, but for regular patients, they’re the best.

It’s a weird and wonderful thing being a hospital ‘lifer’. From the reception staff, to admissions, the cleaners and maintenance team, nurses, pharmacists and doctors, I know them all. The hospital’s barista remembers my order and our ward clerk knows I prefer vegetarian meals; I’m not vegetarian but after years of eating hospital meals I’ve learned they’re usually more palatable than mass-produced sausage casserole, curry or roast.

Today a disposable curtain separates my chair from another frequent flyer, a man just younger than me with a genetic medical condition that regularly threatens his life.

We have nothing in common — me, a left-leaning professional, and him, a heavy-set, heavily tattooed biker with his hospital admission numbers inked on his arm — and polar opposite views on all things social justice. I’ve learned not to respond when he says things that provoke me. But we are friendly, a strangely intimate familiarity bred of years spent sitting side by side, captive to our treatments, riding the ups and downs of our lives.

Two and a half years ago, when months of trouble with collapsed veins and difficult cannula access brought me to tears, he spoke to me about the benefits of a port-a-cath, a surgically implanted access port through which my treatment could be infused. As long as you weren’t whacked in the chest with a nail gun, he quipped, the pain shouldn’t be too bad.

His counsel worked where the doctors and nurses had failed. I went ahead with the surgery and will never see a nail gun the same way again.

Recently my ward buddy disappeared for a few weeks and his absence, and the uncertainty around its outcome, brought tears to my eyes. I’ve outlived several fellow patients during decades of treatment and each one comes as a blow. But by and large it’s all positive.

My regular nurses and ward clerk — the women with whom I have most contact — are the best. Occasionally I bring cake for us to share during my treatment. We take turns doing coffee runs to the hospital cafe.

Their care keeps me healthy, happy and contributing to society. But my nurses don’t just keep me alive, they are so much more than that. They see me at my most vulnerable, they see me at my strongest and most resilient, and they know more of my secrets than I’m sure they care to know. They’ve helped me through the most difficult times of my life, medical and otherwise. They know my family and my secrets. Sometimes I know theirs. I’ve seen personal relationships come and go, holidays planned and enjoyed, births, deaths and marriages. One of my nurses had three babies in the time I was in her care. Others have moved on from my hospital but remain friends. Social media helps.

I have front-row access to the ebbs and flows of a busy working hospital; a closer than usual view of the layered relationships, the daily pressures, the politics, and the versatility required of a small but talented staff. I’ve seen the stress they endure with life-threatening cases and the aftermath of tragic loss, often involving people they know from beyond these walls. Such is life in the country.

Confidentiality is always an issue. A few years ago, a close friend’s sister started working in my ward after years of living away. I was thrilled to have her as my nurse and couldn’t wait for my friend to find out. “Well, I can’t tell her,” she reminded me. So we posed for a photo in hospital and I shared the news myself. When we later lost her in an accident, I was devastated, not only for her family and friends.

I guess none of this should be a surprise. As my ward clerk just said after I told her what I was writing, “if you’re not a compassionate person, working in a hospital is not the right job”. But in my country hospital they seem to go above and beyond.

The same ward clerk has just delivered a calendar with my 20 hospital admission dates for next year, thoughtfully avoiding my birthday and other important days.

On the bottom of the sheet is a cheerful personal note: “19 October 2019 — 20-year anniversary since diagnosis!”

That’s 20 years of the most thoughtful, supportive medical care from the most caring team in the world.

While others may focus on the negatives, I wouldn’t have it any other way. And on that 20-year anniversary, I might swap the cake for champagne.

This article was originally published by the Australian College of Nursing (ACN) on 18th June 2019. Original link

Join the Australian College of Nursing at the Nurses and Clinicians Summit at Victorian Healthcare Week 2019, running on the 23-24 July at the Melbourne Convention Centre.