Celebrating the Year of the Nurse and Midwife

When the WHO declared 2020 as the Year of the Nurse and Midwife, no one could have predicted just what a year it would turn out to be for nurses and midwives around the world as their vital importance to society became ever more obvious during the COVID-19 pandemic. To showcase the significant contribution nurses and midwives, in both clinical and research settings, make to better health outcomes for patients, and to celebrate their achievements, the Institute is sharing the inspirational stories of our nursing and midwifery researchers.

Written by Dr Patricia Nicholson Associate Professor of Nursing

Dr Patricia Nicholson is Associate Professor of Nursing and Director of the Perioperative Postgraduate Course at Deakin University. She holds an Honorary academic position at the University of Melbourne and is an Honorary researcher at Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre. Her current research includes nursing education and competencies, patient safety in the operating suite and Indigenous curriculum development, which she has published and presented both nationally and internationally.    

Pat is a Fellow of the Australian College of Perioperative Nurses and member of the research and journal committee and lead author of the ACORN standards. She represented Victoria as a Director on the ACORN Board for four years and led the review as Chair of the 2010 ACORN Standards. She presented the Judith Cornell Oration at the 2014 ACORN National Conference and was awarded the Individual Excellence in Perioperative Nursing in 2016.  Pat has been a member of Victorian Perioperative Nurses Group (VPNG) for 20 years, a member of the VPNG Executive for 10 years and President for five years. In 2017, she was awarded VPNG Honorary membership.

What does the year of the Nurse and Midwife mean to you?

Celebrating this event reminds me of the importance of acknowledging the role of nurses and midwives as a healthcare professional, highlighting the impact they have on providing safe patient care. For me, this event reminds me of the important role, and the influence, I have in educating and preparing nurses for the future.  

Over the course of your life what has been your proudest accomplishment?

This is a hard question, but I think my proudest accomplishment has been my approach to life, which has influenced my career. During my life there have been many situations that required me to be resilient and adapt to the situation (anyone who has emigrated from a country would understand the challenges you face). My approach is to seek the learning opportunity from any situation, for example when caught in the middle of an armed robbery in South Africa I learnt how strong and resilient I am, even when dealing with such a stressful situation. 

Over the course of your career what has been your proudest accomplishment?

There have been so many accomplishments I’m proud of achieving, but one does stand out for me. In 2014, I was invited to present the Judith Cornel Oration at the Australian College of Perioperative Nurses (ACORN) Conference. Orators are distinguished perioperative nurses who, throughout their careers, have made a significant contribution to advancing perioperative nursing in Australia. So following a peer review process, I received a letter informing me of the ACORN Board outcome. My 60-minute Oration was titled, ‘Are outliers the key to success?’ after which I received a standing ovation that seemed to last forever. During this time I was relieved that it was over, incredibly proud of what I had achieved (especially as my family attended the event), but also quite unsure what to do next! While waiting for the audience to be seated I had time to reflect on the trajectory of my career. I remember the final words of the Oration – ‘Each of you will have moments like these defining your career. The key to success is identifying these opportunities and having the strength and presence of mind to seize them’. I had been awarded the highest honour of presenting the Oration and I seized the opportunity with both hands!      

What did you want to be when you were younger? And when did you decide to become a nurse or midwife?

While completing my final years at school I set my heart on studying medical science. I’m not sure where this interest started, but from an early age I loved reading ‘who done it’ novels. In fact, many of my favourite authors specialise in these types of stories so I continue to enjoy reading about murders and the forensics involved in solving the crime. Another area of interest was reading about death and dying. This was a great concern for my parents, but I was fascinated about the ‘near death’ experiences people wrote about. Given my interest in medical science my parents arranged for me to spend a few days in a medical laboratory. Spending that time looking at a petri dish through a microscope was enough to convince me that I was better placed anywhere other than in a laboratory.

I was nearing completion of my final year of school and was still unsure of what I wanted to do with my life. At that time, girls either became a teacher, hairdresser or nurse. I was not interested in hairdressing or teaching – which is quite ironic given my last 25 years in academia – so I entered nursing on my seventeenth birthday. After completing my nursing training I moved to Cape Town to undertake my midwifery training. I loved working in midwifery but was not able to continue working in the department due to a shortage of positions. When I returned to the town where I grew up I was placed in the operating suite, a place I vowed never to return to after a terrible experience as a student nurse. Although my career has been largely focused on perioperative nursing my great love has always been working with pregnant women and providing care during their pregnancy. 

What inspires you to do your job?

Proving care to patients as a clinician has always been my inspiration, and motivated me to provide the best possible care for every patient under my care during each shift. I remember an incident in my very first month where I noticed that mouth care had been neglected in the ward. Feeling confident about my ability to perform this task I took it upon myself to perform mouth care on some 30 patients, feeling really proud about providing comfort for those patients. Another example includes working with a couple of my colleagues who knew as little as I did. We decided we would bath every patient. This activity required two of us to remove our shoes, stockings and frilly nursing caps so that we could, when required, climb into the bath in order to get the patient out. While we completed the patient ablutions, the third nurse enlisted the help of others to change the patient’s mattress and bedding, something that had not been done in many years for the long-term patients. The pride of ‘doing it right’ remains with me today, something I was taught by a senior registered nurse in my second month of nursing which I have never forgotten.

Making a difference for a patient admitted into your care has been central during my career. This was exemplified when assisting an older patient admitted to the operating room for a repair of a fractured hip. I did something so simple that day – I stopped to listen and provided the care that the patient needed. During the surgery I noticed a crudely tattooed number on the inner part of her wrist, highlighting to me the importance of providing patient centred care.  

In my role as an academic. I’m inspired by the students I’ve taught over many years. I’m reminded about a poignant statement made by Nelson Mandela. He said that education is the most powerful weapon you can use to change the world, something I strongly believe in. I have the privilege of meeting up with past students at various conferences and seminars and they always remind me of the positive influence I have had on their careers, because of the encouragement of striving for excellence and making a difference for the patients in their care.  

What got you interested in becoming a researcher in the area of nursing and midwifery; what do you hope to achieve with your research?

My interest in research started while completing a Diploma in Operating Theatre Nursing Science.  We were required to undertake a research project, so I explored the preoperative preparation of women booked for an elective caesarean section. A change in practice occurred, which was an outcome of the project, whereby partners were allowed to come into the operating theatre and observe the birth of their child. This was an exciting outcome, which led to my first publication and conference presentation. My research area of interest includes midwifery, education and perioperative nursing, mostly centred on patient safety issues. Recent research project outcomes have informed practice in the operating theatre and I’m working towards having an opportunity to be involved in large interdisciplinary clinical trials focused on patient safety.