11 Jun

Sandy Woods meets a casualty, an ICU and a rehabilitation nurse, and discovers what makes this profession both challenging and rewarding at the same time

pictures heidi christie

We are the adrenaline junkies. That’s what they call us,” laughs Sister Hayley Dart, casualty nurse at Busamed Hillcrest Private Hospital, as her colleague Percy Mchunu describes why he enjoys the fast-paced environment in his Cardiac ICU and High Care Unit.

The specialised field of critical care nursing is more a calling than a career for the professionals working in this pressurised environment. “In the cardiac unit, you must expect anything to happen at any time,” says Percy, who with his colleagues provide round-the-clock care, monitoring and immediate assistance should the patient experience difficulty. With 12-hour shifts of intensive one-on-one nursing in ICU, it’s not unusual for nurses to develop a close bond with patients in their care. Some patients stay for long periods or develop chronic cardiac issues, resulting in frequent hospital admissions. “You are going to keep seeing them and you are going to keep helping them. So you are walking with them on this journey,” says Percy. “There’s no better feeling than seeing one of my formerly critically ill patients leaving the hospital with restored health and a grateful, happy smile.”

Hayley, one of a team of five casualty nurses, treats everything from heart attacks to drug overdoses. She consciously doesn’t downplay any ailment or injury that is presented in the Casualty Unit. “It might only be a broken bone, but to the mother of that child it is a scary thing. I always say that it is a privilege to be with a person at the hardest, most vulnerable time in their lives. I never take it for granted that I can make a difference in a person’s life,” she says.

Both Hayley and Percy agree it hurts to lose a patient. “They say nurses become hard, and that’s partly true. You are supposed to be the person who is strong. That’s your job. You are helping the doctor and the patient, so you can’t fall apart. But you still need to care,” says Hayley.

Sister Winnie Ngwane, Unit Manager at the Highway Sub-Acute & Rehabilitation Hospital, explains that nurses can’t be overly sensitive. “If someone dies and you are crying, who will comfort the ones in pain? A nurse has to rise above these situations,” she says. Rehabilitation nurses provide post-acute care and help patients adjust to new physical or mental abilities. “We are a hospital, but our main focus is on rehabilitation. The whole idea of being here is to make patients regain as much function as possible.” Patients have access to a team of resident experts – from doctors to psychologists. Before they are discharged, their family is trained by the rehabilitation nurses to care for them at home by the rehabilitation nurses.

Although casualty, ICU and rehabilitation nurses focus on different aspects of care, they all require patience, empathy and kindness. “A great nurse has a good listening ear and must be calm yet tough,” says Winnie. “Being able to take control of difficult situations is crucial.”

South African nurses are well respected and valued internationally. According to Percy they are resilient, adaptable and use their initiative. “We don’t only study what’s in the book,” he says.

“With nursing, you are exposed to so many types of people that you have to be open. You have to get along with the old and the young. It doesn’t matter what age or culture they are. You just have to get down to work,” adds Hayley. “I think that’s why us South African nurses do so well.”

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