With Christmas approaching, there’s a major push on to let hospital patients spend the holidays at home. The National Winter Plan 2019/2020 will aid this by providing additional supports and measures in order to address the usual winter surge in patients.
Despite staff at CUH being worked off their feet in the run-up to December 25, Karen Harte, a nurse at Cork University Hospital (CUH) who lives in Rosscarbery tells Mary O’Brien there is still an element of seasonal spirit wherever you go. Christmas trees and shiny decorations adorn ward spaces within infection control limitations; there is carol signing by the CUH choir and of course always a very special visitor to the children’s wards.
Karen works in Acute Services in CUH on a general surgery ward.
“The beds start to empty on Christmas Eve and the hospital is suddenly quiet,” she shares.
“Working the holidays is an accepted part of the nursing profession. If you want Christmas off, you have to work New Year, or vice versa. If you end up working Christmas, the shifts tend to feel lighter and merrier. Between secret Santa’s and endless supplies of festive goodies and cheer, staff members make the most of it.”
Karen entered nursing later in life but caring for others was a path she took early on, almost by accident.
After a short stint as a graphic designer, Karen decided this was not the career for her. She decided to go travelling and, in order to save some money, got a job as a multi-task attendant in Mount Carmel Hospital in Clonakilty.
“It was the patient contact that I loved the most,” she says. “I was apprehensive at first, as I had little experience of care of the elderly, but as time passed, I found myself leaving work with a sense of fulfillment. I really enjoyed my job.”
After nine months working in Mount Carmel, Karen moved to New York for two-and-half years, where she worked as a waitress and bartender, loving the ambiguity of big city life.
On returning home to Ireland in 2005, she again began working in healthcare as a home help provider through a local agency. “Home help can be very challenging, as you work mostly in isolation, with vulnerable clients in the relative autonomy of the clients home,” she explains. “For nearly a year, I lived with an elderly lady, in her home, on a week on-week off basis. It was demanding both physically and emotionally, as you can become invested in the client’s life, whilst trying to maintain professional boundaries.”
After another six-month travel timeout, which took in Thailand, Hong Kong, Australia and New Zealand, Karen completed a one-year Fetac healthcare assistant course through FAS.
With some gentle persuasion from her now mother-in-law, who was nursing in CUH at the time, she applied as a mature student for General Nursing in UCC in 2008 and was accepted. “I remember sitting in my first physiology class, having not studied any science subject beyond third year in secondary school, while the lecturer discussed action potentials of cells and thinking ‘I’m completely in over my head here’.”
However with support from her nursing student colleagues and family, she persevered, qualifying in 2012 with first class honours.
She trained in CUH, enjoying all of the many different disciplines she was exposed to, from community, paediatric and midwifery to specialties such as orthopaedic, respiratory and so on, On qualifying, she opted to stay in the Acute services in CUH and was assigned to a general surgery ward, where she has worked since.
“Being a nurse has it’s ups and down’s,” says Karen. “Every day we take care of others by healing their pain, providing calm when they are in distress and providing a listening ear when they most need our support. But it’s also an incredibly tough job, requiring dedication, resilience and patience. Seeing patients you took care of die and how devastating it is to the family is probably the hardest part of being a nurse. Death is hard, until it’s a blessing, then explaining that can be even worse. We are often faced with challenges and difficulties that were not in the job description, and that leave us angry, uncertain and sometimes even questioning why we do it. In these situations, while our compassion does not have a limit, sometimes our ability to maintain our energy and care does.”
Karen finds support in her colleagues. “They offer me a chance to offload, to laugh about things that only we can understand, and make light of even the most difficult situations. Reminding ourselves of the positive differences we make to patients, even if it is not always acknowledged, can be an effective way of coping too. If my day has been particularly tough, I remember one thing that went well and focus on that. I also use my commute drive home to reflect and off load my day, which I find particularly beneficial.”
It’s not difficult to become disheartened when continually battling a trolley crisis, overcrowding, staff shortages and wage discrepancies in the public service.
“It is these times that I like to remember the patients that have helped me more than I could have ever helped them. The ones you still remember long after they leave your care,” says Karen.
“The patients who pop into say hello every time they are at the hospital. The family of a lady with dementia, who said I was the ‘nicest, kindest, most caring nurse’ they had met and praised my positive attitude. They may not know it, but they are all the reasons that I want to be a nurse. They are the ones that keep me going even when I’ve had a bad day and someone has urinated on my shoes!”
Despite the challenges, Karen loves nursing. “I enjoy working in acute care where I learn something new most days and take care of some very sick patients. Down the line, when I grow tired of getting up at 5.30am and coming home after 9pm, I would be open to going back to where it all started for me, in care of the elderly.”
Her lovely home in Rosscarbery, which she shares with her husband John, is her retreat, giving her the space and mental health time in order to maintain a healthy work-life balance.