A pathway to a healthier you

Chronic health issues and the need for support

Nurse educator Kate Herbert knows the value of support for nurses and midwives in educational settings and workplaces. 

Kate lives with Myalgic Encephalomyelitis/Chronic Fatigue System (ME/CFS), a complex and debilitating disease that affects many parts of the body.  

Support essential to graduating and staying on the job 

A combination of sheer determination and good support while at university and in the workplace has allowed Kate to develop professionally despite continuing without a medical diagnosis for almost a decade. 

Kate says the support she received while completing her nursing training and in most of her subsequent workplaces has been vital to maintaining and developing her career.  

“I began my nursing training in 2001 and finished in 2004. It took me four years. I got sick at the end of my second year but wasn’t diagnosed at that time,” she says.  

Placements are possible (if you are living with a chronic illness)

“During my final year I had lots of placements and I had good support throughout this journey. I was able to do my placements in roles that were less physically demanding, and I didn’t have to travel far.”  

Determined to explore the opportunities nursing offers, Kate pushed through a “brutal” period in her life before her ME/CFS diagnosis, travelling overseas to work as a remote nurse in Bolivia, during a brief time of respite in her condition.  

Misdiagnosis impact on nursing career  

Kate explains that the lack of a medical diagnosis was stressful and traumatic. “I constantly had doctors and psychologists trying to deal with my condition as a mental health issue. This caused a lot of medical trauma and my nursing trajectory is tied up with that.” 

Without a diagnosis and unable to understand how to manage the symptoms that left her exhausted, with limited energy to do more than work part time and just survive, Kate continued working and took on a master’s in public health. 

“When I got back from Bolivia I decided to move to Melbourne (from Tasmania) to do paediatrics. I had to eventually stop doing nights because I couldn’t recover from them. I was also trying to finish my master’s in public health,” she says. 

“I couldn’t juggle work with the academic load, but I finished with a Graduate Certificate. It was around this time that a friend told me I had to stop. When you are in your mid-20s you don’t want to hear that. You have a job you love and things you want to do.” 

Kate met her husband in Melbourne and after about three years they moved to her hometown of Hobart. “The air is cleaner, house prices affordable and my family were there,” she says. “My first job back in Hobart was in infection control and public health but I decided to move back to clinical practice.” 

Diagnosis – strategies for going forward

“It was in early 2013 when I was working in paediatrics again that I got food poisoning and that led to a diagnosis of Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome (POTS). From there I went to Melbourne and got the ME/CFS diagnosis and finally understood that I was not supporting myself by going hard and crashing all the time,” she says.  

Receiving a medical diagnosis for her condition was a huge relief and allowed Kate to get on with her life. “I was relieved to finally understand what was going on with my health and to start developing the medical and management strategies to support my body,” she says. 

“I also had to deal with the fall out of being treated like I didn’t have a medical condition and the wrong management advice for almost 20 years. I was often told I just needed to ‘“get fit’”. If getting fit could have fixed me, I’d be fine, but each time I tried to slowly increase my strength and cardiovascular fitness, I’d crash, and each crash was worse.” 

It was after her diagnosis that Kate volunteered with Emerge Australia, a national support service for people living with ME/CFS. “I started out as a volunteer, and they offered me a job which was lovely”.  

Family and informal support – recognition overdue

Kate acknowledges that she couldn’t have returned to work without a very supportive husband and mother. “It is important to point out the contribution of informal carers and I think our government could do more to acknowledge them and the fact that they reduce the burden on the health care system by supporting their loved ones.” 

In Kate’s words:

“I think the Nurse and Midwife Health Program Australia is valuable because it means our colleagues who become unwell will have someone to talk to who knows what it is like to work in the healthcare system. 

“It would have been valuable for me to speak to someone who understood the system I was trying to function in.  

“There are so many things we could be doing to support nurses and midwives with health issues. I understand the pressures managers are under to fill shifts, but we need to understand that some people can’t work nights or long hours. Looking after the health of your staff is important too.  

“Job security is another important part of the solution to keep people with health conditions in the workforce. I think I was lucky because I mostly worked in permanent positions in the public hospital system and had supportive managers.  

“However, there were roles where a large majority of my work could have been done from home when I wasn’t in a patient facing role. At the time, management were unable to see the benefits of a more flexible work arrangement, which meant I was unable to remain in that role.  

“If you have a chronic condition, it can be difficult to keep your registration. We need more nurses so it makes sense to consider different ways to enable registration for people with chronic health conditions who might have let their registration lapse.  

“We are losing valuable nurses with experience and once they have been through a diagnostic process, they understand the system better than most. This is backed up by the tele-health nurses at Emerge Australia who have lived experience of chronic illness. They are very effective at helping people. Lived experience goes a long way when you combine it with professional training.  

“There are so many economic and social benefits to keep people with chronic conditions in the workforce. I am now working for an organisation that understands my illness and provides the flexibility I need to stop and rest at times. I am treated like a professional and that makes me want to give more.  

Emerge Australia is available to support you. 1800 865 321