I didn’t go into nursing ignorant of the challenges ahead. I’d witnessed the enormous toll it can take emotionally and physically, and was exposed to the seemingly constant negative press surrounding the NHS about overworked staff and a broken system. Yet I wanted to be a nurse. And I wasn’t going to let the NHS break me.
After three years of training, I started my first job as a children’s nurse on a busy surgical ward. I sat in my first handover, listening to the nurses complain about not getting breaks until, eventually, one turned to me and said dryly, “Welcome to the NHS!” These weren’t bad people. They were exhausted from giving so much to a system that relies on the good nature of its staff. But I was still optimistic. I wanted to be a good nurse. I wasn’t bitter. Yet.
My enthusiasm very quickly waned. My optimism and energy were worn down by the patient load, 14-hour days with just a cup of coffee to see me through, and the crushing responsibility of being a newly-qualified nurse. I made an agreement with myself: I’d get through one full year before I quit, just to prove to people I’d tried.
As the months passed I found myself actually enjoying the job. Yes, I still worked long days without a real break. And yes, I did still worry about my patients on my days off. But I’d somehow adapted to the gruelling schedule of a nurse. And so I continued.
But gradually, over the years, my list of grievances with nursing grew. It started to affect my home life and I noticed that I was getting sick more often. My resilience had been weakened and I felt like I was running on empty.
My partner and I had been talking about living abroad for a while and we came to the conclusion that now was as good a time as any. We were both ready for a break. Many of our friends were buying houses and climbing career ladders, and would often comment that we were brave to quit it all. But for me taking a break seemed selfish and indulgent rather than brave. I didn’t even consider whether it would harm my career progression. At that point I yearned for less, rather than more responsibility.
And so we packed our bags and headed for Asia. On long bus journeys or during quiet moments I would sometimes question whether I could go back to nursing. With the luxury of distance and time I saw myself as the bitter, overworked nurse I’d been sure I wouldn’t become. I was ashamed. I’d lost sight of why I wanted to be nurse.
After six months away from nursing, I heard that the Lao friends hospital for children in Luang Prabang was looking for nursing volunteers. Re-energised by our time away so far, I felt ready for a new challenge and so, with a mixture of apprehension and excitement, we headed to Laos.
The hospital is well equipped thanks to the generosity of the charity that funds and runs it. Yet compared with NHS hospitals it lacks the equipment, medicines and expertise that we take for granted. In the UK I never saw a child go without a blood transfusion because the blood bank was empty, or watched a terminally ill child be discharged home with only an apology that we could do no more. It reminds me how lucky we are to have the NHS. The limitations we worked with in Laos encouraged innovation and teamwork, which can sometimes be lacking or forgotten about in the vastness of the NHS.
Being part of a team that responds innovatively and tirelessly to the challenges these limitations provide, combined with spending my days (and nights) with children and their families and the joy of seeing these children get better, has reignited my enthusiasm for nursing.
I’m extending my stay here in Luang Prabang. Hopefully when I return to the UK, I’ll be a better nurse for my time spent here. But I certainly wouldn’t rule out another career break. It’s been difficult financially, and yes, it’s a luxury, but a break from my normal has made me remember why I’m proud to be a nurse.
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Originally posted on The Guardian