Associate Professor of Nursing Maree Bernoth in the Charles Sturt University School of Nursing, Paramedicine and Healthcare Sciences in Wagga Wagga reflects on a 50-year career in the nursing profession and all the changes, highlights and developments that have occurred in that time.
The nursing profession would have suffered a huge blow if Associate Professor Maree Bernoth had followed her first career aspiration.
She worked at North Ryde Psychiatric Centre, now Macquarie Hospital, while waiting for results from her Higher School Certificate, with the intention of studying teaching at university.
But by the time the results arrived, Maree was earning a wage and having a wonderful time in Sydney so she declined the Commonwealth Scholarship and offer of a university place.
That first nursing role saw Maree embark on a 50-year career in nursing, an anniversary she officially celebrated on Monday 15 November.
Her first nursing job was taking care of children with mental health conditions and autism at the North Ryde Psychiatric Centre. The first six months was completed at the hospital with no training, an experience that Maree said has deterred her from returning to hospital-based training for registered nurses.
“Giving dangerous medications to children when I had no education about medications still fills me with dread,” she said.
Maree has worked in many roles over the years and been impacted by many patients.
She credits her time as part of the commissioning team and the then-educator at the Mercy Hospital in Newcastle for teaching her about cherishing life and valuing family and friends.
Maree learned about the value of communication skills and used that knowledge to ensure a divided family were able to be with their mother as she died.
She said the patients were often the best teachers and she has kept all the cards and gifts she has received from patients over the years.
It is a patient from the mid-1980s that stands out for Maree though. ‘Brian’ was one of the first patients admitted with AIDS, which caused blindness and immobility. AIDS was a relatively unknown disease then and nurses were required to wear full protective gear when treating Brian.
Brian’s only human interaction was contact through plastic. After Maree showered Brian one morning, he began to cry and she wiped his tears away with her gloved hand.
“It seemed so inhumane at such an emotive moment, so I removed my glove, wiped his tears with my hand and gave Brian a hug,” Maree said.
“That put an end to plastic when I was caring for Brian … I still have the card of gratitude from his mother.”
It was while working as the Senior Nurse Educator at Allandale Nursing Home in Cessnock that Maree completed her conversion degree, the Bachelor of Health Science Nursing at Charles Sturt University. She then completed a Master of Education at the University of New England.
Maree left Allandale in the late 1990s for a non-profit facility where she commenced her PhD focusing on supporting safe working practices of aged care staff.
Due to government policy, management practices, insufficient staff and inadequately educated staff, Maree found the industry to be unsafe. But when she questioned the practices, a manager told her she would like to ‘shoot her with rubber bullets’ and dismissed her concerns.
Maree has been researching and advocating for 15 years to make the aged care industry safer for carers and patients, but the answers still allude her.
“The main issue with the aged care sector is privatisation,” she said.
“The commodification of our vulnerable older people and organisations focused on profits and shareholder dividends means that decisions about care are based on commercial interests and not on the assessed, evidence-based interventions the individual needs to ensure quality of life.
“How do we address this? The answers escape me.”
It has been five decades of constant change for the nursing industry.
Maree said some of the most welcome changes include getting rid of starched veils and slippery Hall’s nurses’ shoes, and nurses no longer having to stand with their hands behind their back at the end of a patient’s bed when the matron does rounds.
But one of the biggest changes is the shift of nurse education from hospitals to universities.
Maree called Charles Sturt University in 2009 to enquire about employment and it was then she left the residential aged care sector for a life in academia.
“Charles Sturt University gave me the opportunity to influence future registered nurses through my teaching and being part of the academy enables me to continue to research and advocate with a more confident, authoritative voice,” she said.
“It is the ability to make a difference in people’s lives that drives me. In my current position I have the ability to make a positive impact.”
After all these years, Maree still feels proud as she watches her students graduate, especially if they were hesitant when commencing their degree.
From trainee, to practising nurse, to researcher and educator, Maree did not get to where she is by shying away from opportunity. Her love for learning coupled with her mentors and family have ensured she has enjoyed what she describes as a ‘fulfilling career’.
Nursing enrolments at Charles Sturt University have increased by 141 per cent from 2011 to 2021, from 463 to 1,116 students respectively.
Maree said she had noticed an increase in the popularity of nursing, and particularly the Charles Sturt degree, over the years.
“It is gratifying to see the increasing numbers and this bodes well for the health of Australians,” she said.
“Students are attracted to nursing at Charles Sturt because of the experiences of students before them.
“Charles Sturt University students are well regarded in clinical settings where they participate in work placements. Clinical mentors in hospitals share how impressed they are with the work ethic and the interpersonal skills of our students.”
The increase in popularity of nursing in recent years is a positive sign for the health of rural Australians, according to Maree, who said the increasing enrolments are likely to fill a shortage of health professionals in rural and regional Australia.
COVID-19 also played a part in recent times to attract students to nursing.
“Graduates from high school cannot spend a gap year travelling so are more likely to enrol in tertiary education immediately after school,” Maree said.
“There is also a high media profile of nurses, showing the work they do and the difference they make in the lives of individuals and families, especially during the pandemic. The ability to enhance lives and communities makes the profession of nursing very attractive.”
Maree said nursing gives people the chance to make a difference in people’s lives, in a flexible profession with multiple pathways.
She encourages students considering a career in nursing to actively pursue their goals and make the most of opportunities presented to them.
“Nursing is an incredible opportunity,” she said.
“The range of nursing roles are many and varied, and career progression is there for those with curiosity and willingness to continue to develop their skills and knowledge.
“The profession is ever-evolving with technology, research and scientific achievements contributing to constant change, making it an exciting career choice.”