A pathway to a healthier you

Small steps back from burnout

Where do I start? I am finding this difficult to write, but I will try. I have been a nurse for 40 years. In this time, I enjoyed working in the acute surgical department the most, as I like to see the patient walking out the hospital. In 2020 during the Pandemic, I also experienced working on a hospital covid ward.

Crash – no warning

On Monday the 19 June 2022 I went to work feeling tired and very fatigued. I am sure many nurses have gone to work feeling the same. At 1600hrs I rang the nurse co-ordinator and told her I didn’t feel well. She told me there was no one to replace me and to have a rest. A little while later I began to feel worse. I was weak, faint, dizzy and sweaty. I was sitting at the desk, alone and hanging onto the computer for support. I rang the nursing co-ordinator again, but she did not answer. Then I rang the emergency department where a nurse picked up the phone. I told her that I thought I was going to collapse. The nurse requested a MET call to the 3rd floor nurses’ station where I was.

I don’t remember being transferred from the chair to the bed and arriving into the emergency department. Observations, bloods, ECG and CT head all came back NAD. I was directed to go home and rest. Little did I know that I would not return to work to do a shift until 17 September 2023, some 15 months later.

The exhaustion got worse; I had no energy. All I could do was collect the paper from the front lawn each day. I couldn’t drive, stand in the shower (I used a chair) and I could not walk around a supermarket.

Many months off work, many GP visits with lots more tests - bloods, urines, MRI Brain, CT IVP Echo, and Stress Echo. All results returned a normal reading. My children called me a couch surfer. I would start the day in the front of the house in the morning and transfer to the back of the house couch in the afternoon.

Rest – no shortcut to recovery

I thought my life was over; nursing home here I come. The GP told me to rest. I needed a pathway to get better. I got a referral to see a general physician who had known me for 15 years from work. After a 30-minute consultation he told me I was mentally and physically exhausted, that I needed to rest and that it will take time.

Where do I go from here? How do I get better? A very close girlfriend gave me a book to read. Burnout; A Guide to Identifying Burnout and Pathways to Recovery by Gordon Parker, Gabriela Tavella and Kerrie Eyers.

Recovery, health and self-care

So my journey began. Every day I would do 30 minutes of yoga, 10 minutes of mindfulness, journaling every day, no alcohol, no caffeine, good food, getting a good night’s sleep and an afternoon nap. I started to see a psychologist and naturopath. 

Support from a specialist service

In September 2022, I rang the Nursing and Midwifery Health Program Victoria. From that day I started frequent Zoom appointments. I discussed how I was feeling and planned my days of activities and rest. I had Zoom meetings with the same nurse from September 2022 to May 2023.

Small steps back to what’s important 

I have a very close friend who would ring me every day to see how I was going. Her last words were always, “It will take little steps at a time to get better.” My body and mind needed rest and that’s what I did. I spent time with close friends and family, watched movies and read books. 

Diagnosis – breast cancer

So, May 2023, I could slowly feel myself feeling normal again. But that all changed when I got a recall on a mammogram. On the 22 May 2023 at 1100hrs I was diagnosed with the early stages of breast cancer. I knew what was going to happen next, I knew the drill. I had 2 lots of surgery, 19 days of radiotherapy and now I am on medication to stop recurrence.

Care at every stage of breast cancer treatment

Every step you go through with breast cancer there is help. At diagnosis I had a breast care nurse sit by my side. The day of surgery the breast care nurse rang me on the phone and spoke with me at length. I have ongoing appointments with my surgeon. When I had my radiotherapy, I had the radiotherapy nurses and the radiation oncologist support, and I also continue seeing my medical oncologist. There is also a  number to ring if you need a nurse counsellor.

All this information is provided to you when you have a diagnosis of breast cancer. When you have a diagnosis of exhaustion you need to find your own care and this is what makes it so difficult. Exhaustion has no pathway. 

Prevention, detection, support and care for nurses and midwives

Firstly, we need to prevent exhaustion with our nurses, see the early signs and have pathways to return to normal health and wellbeing. I want nurses to learn how to look after themselves, learn to look out for each other, and know where to get help.

Society wants health problems to be a quick fix but sometimes our health takes a long time to repair.

Resuming life as a nurse

My energy levels are still not back to normal. At present I am working one shift a week and next year I will increase to two shifts a week. All I ask is to please look after yourselves because sometimes we only care for our patients, staff, family and forget about ourselves.