Last weekend I was MC for the 43rd Annual Conference of the Perioperative Nurses College of NZNO. I practiced saying ‘perioperative’ about a hundred times beforehand, even though, to begin with, I really had no idea what it meant: I just thought it would be nice to swap jeans and gumboots for frocks and heels, a transition not without glamour-associated side effects. Hair and makeup done, driving to the venue, I kept catching sight of myself in the rear-view mirror and freaking out. Who is that woman?! It’s you, you dozy mare.
Perioperative nurses are theatre nurses, Florence Nightingales doling out a kind smile, a reassuring pat on the hand to patients about to undergo a traumatic life experience. While the 12-year-old surgeon is telling you how awesome what he’s about to do to you is, medically, perioperative nurses are the ones who make you feel that, within reason, nobody’s going to laugh at your bits or draw a moustache on your face while you’re unconscious. Doing all the literal and metaphorical heavy lifting, they put up with shite pay, long nights staying awake eating crap food and drinking worse coffee and you never hear of them striking. They are the unsung heroes of our healthcare system.
The conference was attended by nurses of many stripes and specialities, and I’ll tell you what, they have very strong stomachs. Unflinching, they watched a presentation on endoscopic scoliosis surgery from Dunedin Hospital’s world-beating dream team of Alan Carsten, Ginny Martin and Jason Henwood which had me staring at the wall, thinking Halloween had come early and breathing heavily, much to the amusement of those seated next to me. I was tempted to put my head between my legs but, wearing borrowed Charmaine Reveley and about to field questions from the audience, I thought it might muffle my voice.
The exhibitor stands were filled with objects that looked like they could clear drains, mix concrete or rescue a wedding ring from the back of the dryer. There were enough beds and clamps and needles and things to easily set up a wee Botox clinic as a side line − for some reason they didn’t. I wandered the trade floor picking things up and asking what they were (this initially caused some confusion, as everybody knows what a ureteral access sheath is, apparently) however my curiosity peaked after someone mimed hammering something long and pointy into a hip bone. Anaesthesia was invented for a reason. Sometimes it’s better not to know.
Nurses are a tight knit bunch, mostly, I think, because they speak a language the public don’t, can toss off: ‘neuromodulation in homeostasis’ without blinking, and because they see some truly awful stuff. They can hardly rock up to a dinner party and share work stories in a getting-it-off-your-chest manner (people are eating). Hospital work stories aren’t ‘weird Jenny from Sales is copying my outfits’ more: ‘we had to amputate the leg’ − which can put you off your prosciutto-wrapped asparagus; meaning nurses tend to keep the secrets of the operating theatre to themselves. It’s a very stressful occupation. Not like in the 1970s, when the first perioperative nurses conference was held in Dunedin. Back then, nurses wore the white uniforms and stockings of a thousand schoolboy fantasies, the job was by all accounts rather fun and, if you were of a mind to, you could smoke INSIDE the hospital.
Maybe this pressure is why nurses inhabit an alternate reality when it comes to a sense of humour. An example of this is the fact that the perioperative nurses’ college magazine is called the Dissector. The first, second and third time I heard this, I nearly wet myself. Nobody else seemed to find this remotely funny yet they were in bits over Wellington having the highest number of patients presenting with foreign objects inserted inside them this year (Dunedin had the fewest, in case you’re wondering. We just have better things to do, I guess).
So, whether you’ve ‘fallen’ on a bust of Beethoven or chopped off all your toes not looking where you’re shovelling (and there, but for the grace of God, go I) know that in your moment of need, the lovely nurse telling you that everything’s going to be alright has just spent three days topping up the skills to keep that promise. Worry instead about what you’re going to tell your mum.