An Aussie ode to nurses: lofty words are not enough

Halfway across the world, a nurse’s job looks much the same — and is just as important. So how great is it when an Australian former deputy premier writes an ode to nurses for one of the country’s main newspapers?

Nurses deserve our thanks when they serve us, respect when they warn of looming shortages and justice when they advocate for salary increases.

John Watkins was so impressed by the care he received during surgery, he wrote to the Sydney Morning Herald to rhapsodize about Australia’s nurses. “Whatever nation or culture our nurses come from, and those that serve [in our hospitals] come from everywhere and every culture,” he writes in high-flown language, the one gift they all share is the “capacity for compassion and empathy and comforting that is yearned for by every patient in need of their care.”

If that sounds a little all too Florence Nightingale, don’t worry. He is quick to add that “all our nurses are highly professional and well trained, practical and self-reliant”. He saves his highest praise for the resilience of night nurses, who labor through “the deep exhaustion of a row of night shifts” and nevertheless remain not only kind, but “accurate and accountable and aware”.

Photo: Australian nurse in Canberra hospital

Australian nurse in Canberra hospital

In the end, he adds: “There were others who cared for me in hospital. The personal care attendants and the brilliant surgeon and physician but, for me, it was those who nursed me for whom I will always be most grateful.”

Real respect for nurses means heeding their warnings too

Here’s the thing that sets his piece apart, though. It’s great when politicians pay respect to the work of nurses in lofty words. But they should draw the conclusions too, and Watkins gets that. Paying respect to nurses also means taking their needs and warnings seriously:

“I read the Herald’s warnings about a long-term recruitment crisis in nursing and was disturbed by the news that nurses were virtually priced out of certain areas of Sydney due to house prices. We ignore these warnings at our peril. […] Nurses deserve our thanks when they serve us, respect when they warn of looming shortages and justice when they advocate for salary increases. Without them, our lives, at what is often our lowest ebb, would be immeasurably poorer.”

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Every politician should be a patient and then perhaps they would understand the stress that our profession is under. It’s a shame John Watkins didn’t spend more time listening to nurses before he retired.