Nurses truly unsung heroes

Sore feet, carrying people heavier than yourself and delivering condolences to loved ones about the death of patients.

These are just some of the things that nurses have to deal with on a daily basis. Despite all of this, the role played by nurses in delivering efficient healthcare services, is sometimes underplayed or overlooked.

In a way, they are the unsung heroes of the profession.

But today the spotlight is all on nurses as the world celebrates International Nurses’ Day.

The Saturday Dispatch this week shadowed Sister Beulah Butler to get a better understanding of how things are done. Butler has been a nurse at East London’s Frere Hospital since 1995 and has seen six health MECs in the province come and go.

As an East London girl, Butler is fluent in English, Afrikaans and isiXhosa and this is something she says has helped her interact and relate to patients over the years.

“Back in the day we did not have many choices in terms of career. You were either going to be a nurse, a doctor, a teacher or a lawyer.

“Coming from a family of nurses, I chose being a nurse. My mom, grandmother and aunt were all nurses. As a result of that, I knew what to expect from the profession but you can never know how it will be until you start doing something,” she said.

The 46-year-old married mother of two said she has seen many things in her career of more than two decades and not being squeamish has helped along the way.

“As a young nurse, I remember us insisting on treating patients in pairs because we were young and scared of treating young men whose penises had fallen off due to septic circumcision,” she said.

The inevitable has happened where Butler saw patients die right in front of her eyes.

The pain of losing a patient is still as heartbreaking today as it was when she saw her first patient draw their last breath.

“It is traumatic to lose patients but you have to learn to leave those things at the hospital because you could get depressed if you don’t,” she said.

Butler has climbed the ranks and is now the operational manager of one of the wards at Frere Hospital.

While there is no such thing as a typical day in a nurse’s life, nurses have a routine that they follow.

From 7am they have a hand over from the night staff to the morning staff, nursing assistants handle bed-making while professional nurses deal with admin.

This is followed by patient observations, administering medication and changing dressings. Then breakfast is served.

Doctors arrive for their rounds and they are accompanied by nurses. Fortnightly, scheduled medications have to be collected and accounted for by Butler.

Patients are taken for scans and

X-rays and bookings are made where necessary.

Then it is tea time for the nurses. The routine from patient observations is repeated.

While the Dispatch was following Butler there was a bit of commotion during observations when a staff nurse called out to Butler to come and assist her in another ward. It was then clear something major was happening. A patient had died.

Butler then called time of death and had notified the woman’s loved ones while the other nurses straightened her while her body was still warm.

The mood in the ward had quickly changed from the jolly one it was during morning prayers to sombre.

What it means to lose a patient was clearly written all over the nurses’ faces.

Butler sat at her desk. She was dreading making the call but she had to – it is part of her job.

She turns pink after dialling the number. She waits while the phone rings.

She politely greets the person on the other side.

Then she delivers the bad news.

“Unfortunately ngo 11.20am umama uye wasishiya (Unfortunately mama passed away at 11.20am). I’m sorry.”

After dropping the call, she turns and says: “Ooh ja, this is the part I do not enjoy.”

The nurses then had to continue with their routine. It was soon lunch and the routine was repeated again until supper at 4.30pm.

In between, patients were moved to other wards and others were discharged. There were also new admissions. It was repeated until the next hand over to the night staff at 7pm at which point Butler was ready to go home with sore feet.

Zola Malala, a porter, affectionately calls Butler “Shorty”. This is in reference to her short stature – she is only 1.5 metres tall.

“I have been here since 2009 and Shorty is very easy to work with. She is always busy helping where she can,” Malala said.

Patients equally speak highly of the friendly nurse.

Patient Mninawe Macingwane said: “You can see this lady has a passion for what she does. She is very compassionate. It is easy to communicate with her because she speaks isiXhosa and we can easily express how we feel as patients.” — siyat@dispatch.co.za

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