Thriving in caring professions: My journey

Mark Aitken, Stakeholder Engagement Manager, Nurse & Midwife Support
How an injury at work made registered nurse Mark rethink the importance of self-care.

As I travel the country to spread the word about Nurse & Midwife Support, I hear so many stories about the great work you do and some of the challenges you face.

Nurses, midwives and students tell me they love their profession, but struggle to find balance in their lives or the time to do what they need to thrive. Hearing these stories, I wonder: What does it mean to thrive? How do we prioritise our own well-being?

To thrive is to be prosperous, flourish and grow – it is to live our best lives.

I took my own journey from living to thriving. That’s one reason I love working for Nurse & Midwife Support. We support nurses, midwives and students every day, because your health matters.

Not so many years ago, back in the 1980s, I was a student nurse full of the possibilities and excitement of my future career. I trained in a teaching hospital in Melbourne, in the days when lifting equipment consisted of ‘nurse power’, and manual handling was a concept still to evolve. The shoulder lift, top and tail, and cradle lift were part of our daily work.

Like most of us, I now know I did things that would inevitably lead to injury.

The day I hurt my back seemed like any other workday. It was my ninth shift in a row and I was allocated ten patients. I was asked to assist with returning a patient to bed from her chair. The bed and chairs were fixed in position. As always, I took the top and my lifting buddy took the patient’s legs. I remembered to keep my back straight and bend my knees.

On the count of three, we lifted the patient from the low chair to the high bed and just as the patient was placed on the bed, I felt an excruciating pain in my lower back. The pain progressed to muscle spasm and an inability to walk and I was sent home to rest. I went home to bed and put my head under the doona.

My back slowly improved, and several days later I returned to work and more lifting — but my back never really returned to normal. Over the years I learned to manage it. I still live with chronic back pain. I decided that I didn’t want any other nurses to go through what I did, so after the first OH&S safety act was passed in 1985, I became one of the first safety reps.  

I’ve worked as a nurse for 34 years. Like most nurses and midwives I know, I put the needs of others before my own. In the past, this often meant that I didn’t listen to the signs that my back needed rest, or that I needed to prioritise exercise, treatment, or a holiday.  I wouldn’t accept that I needed to nurture myself to protect my back and keep doing all the things in life that I loved to do.

As a result, my back pain often defined the way I lived and worked. At a certain point, I had to make the choice that I did not want to be defined as a person with chronic back pain. I took control and managed my back pain, instead of letting the back pain and disability control me. It was an empowering moment. 

I found a great GP, went to a myotherapist for treatment, started pilates and joined a gym. I connected with the importance of core strength, regular exercise, rest and mindfulness. I learned to thrive.

Then I took on a desk job, working at a computer rather than running around a ward, which was good and bad — good, because I wasn’t aggravating my back by lifting and being on my feet all day, but bad because sitting at a desk, working at a computer is one of the worst things for chronic back pain. The pain returned and so did my despair.

This time, I didn’t just accept the pain. I discovered the benefits of seeing an osteopath and seeking advice from the OH&S representative. An ergonomic assessment of my workstation and seating was conducted and recommended a sitting standing desk. The OH&S representative provided tips on adjusting and readjusting my workstation, reminded me to have regular breaks and take time to do maintenance exercise at work.

I gave myself permission to look after myself and do all that things that allow me to flourish. Now, I am back in control and thriving.

Living a full life is about thriving and not just surviving.

Thanks and look after yourself and each other.