An interview with an ITU nurse


We spoke to Liz, a nurse on the ITU ward for the NHS.

“As a child, my mum was in an accident and spent almost a year in hospital which left an early impression on me. Although it is not something I went to directly, I didn’t go into nursing until after I’d had children, and initially, I was what they classified as a “mature student”

I felt that this benefited me and that having some life experience behind me made me a better nurse (although not a better student)!

As a student nurse, you attend placements on a variety of wards to experience a variety of types of nursing. I knew after my intensive care experience that this was where I wanted to work but they didn’t accept newly qualified nurses. 

Once qualified I spent 2 years on a surgical ward before applying for ITU. I have since attended the critical care course (specialist course to enhance ITU nursing) and am now an intensive care sister.

I will be returning to university again this year to complete the outreach course; an outreach nurse attends the wards of the hospital to see deteriorating patients on wards to optimise the ward care with the aim of preventing further deterioration and to facilitate prompt intensive care admission when needed.

Once you qualify as a nurse that is not the end of your learning. Further education has probably been my biggest challenge, I have always been a practical learner and when I see theory in practice I absorb and retain information with no problem. My main struggle has been when attending new courses which involve academic essay writing as it does not come naturally to me.

As a sister in ITU, my role can vary several times in one day from taking charge of the unit, managing emergencies, patient care, teaching new staff and students, dealing with aggressive patients and families, breaking bad news, moving to other wards to work when they have staff shortages… to name just a few of the different hats I wear at work. So I think the main quality needed is adaptability.”

Advice for women looking to go into nursing

“This is a job for people who want to care holistically, it is not something you do for the money. You spend 3 years full time at university (only 4 weeks off per year while studying) and when you finish you have the responsibility of looking after sick people at their most vulnerable, dealing with highly stressful situations and you leave at the end of the month with less money than a trainee manager at LIDL. 

Don’t be under the illusion that it will be glamorous and heroic, it’s not… But it is worth it and if it’s in your nature you will love it and realise it’s more important than the money (although a pay rise would be nice sometime)! It is the most rewarding job.

I can’t compare with other workplaces but the NHS as a whole is predominantly female-led. Although there are plenty of male nurses around I feel that nursing is becoming less of a stereotypical women’s job. In my department, the management structure is all-female apart from 1 male, and the consultant intensivist doctors are 50% female.

In my role I facilitate a follow-up clinic where people who have recovered from an ITU stay are invited back to see how they are getting on and to deal with any issues that can happen as a result of a critical illness (flashbacks, nightmares, hallucinations), we can put things in place to try and support them through this. I get a lot of fulfilment from this part of my job to see people recovered and back with family.

The NHS is a facility that is unique to the UK and is envied all over the world. During the pandemic, most routine hospital services were suspended and the staff who work in those areas were moved to work in the wards and ITU where the strain of the pandemic was highlighted. These doctors, nurses and support workers who came to ITU were completely out of their comfort zone, worked hard and gave their all to support the ITU staff at this unprecedented time. I feel this defines the NHS and what we should be most proud of.”

How my job has been affected by COVID19

“This is a huge question to answer and difficult to know where to begin as my job has changed in so many ways and is continuing to change daily. But the main thing that has affected and the way it changes my job is the use of PPE. 

Although this is a completely necessary change that we have had to undertake, I have felt that as well as a protective measure it also applies a barrier to everything that I feel is important in nursing, good communication, a smile and touch. These are difficult to achieve through a tight-fitting mask which is difficult to speak through, a visor or goggles, full-sleeved long gown and double layers of gloves.

Things are still changing and the NHS is adapting but I, unfortunately, feel that the PPE will become a permanent fixture for months and years to come.”

Talking about mental health

“Mental health is so complex. I feel that the impact COVID will have on the mental health of NHS staff will not show itself for a while yet, and I can’t speak for the NHS as a whole but the trust I work for has put a lot of effort into mental health support, including the time to talk with counsellors, a chill out room with a quiet space with recliners, water and fruit, self-referring for occupational health for extra support. It helps when you work in an area with a strong emphasis on teamwork, we seem to pick up when someone is having a difficult day and are good at intercepting this and taking some pressure off.”

The NHS in the media

“During the pandemic, the NHS has had a lot of positive publicity, the Thursday clap for heroes and rainbows in windows is all great, but the NHS is 72 years old next week and apart from the fact that this virus is easily spread, we are significantly busier (from an ITU perspective) and we are a lot more uncomfortable wearing PPE. 

We are doing the same work we have done for years and will continue to do for many more years (unless the Tories get their way and privatise it). [‘Unfortunately, I have no doubt as soon as things die down and it becomes a slow news day the NHS will become an easy target for a scandalous story that will make the headlines and the “’heroes” will be forgotten.”

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