Former burns nurse reflects on more than 33 years on the job

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Latest News 18 June 2019 | Techniques for nursing burns patients have changed dramatically in the years since Jan Steele first started working at Middlemore Hospital.

 Ms Steele, who recently retired from her role as a nurse at the Auckland Regional and National Burns service after 33 and a half years, says patients used to be bathed daily in lux flakes.

“Then it went to baby shampoo, then salt, and then Dermaveen which created a bath that looked like porridge,” she says.

In earlier times, these baths occurred with some pain relief for patients but not with the attendance of an anaesthetist. In those days up to three staff were required to assist in the process. Ms Steele remembers the first time an anaesthetist was called before a patient was bathed.

“We booked the anaesthetist in. He was a lovely man. He said he’d be there at a set time and would expect a coffee, a donut and a chocolate fish. He just about fell over when he arrived and was presented with exactly that,” she says, adding the team provided said refreshments every time the anaesthetist attended the unit from then on.

Wound care products have improved since that time – and patients thankfully undergo fewer dressing changes and baths.

Reflecting over her years at the service which treats the most severe burns in the country, Ms Steele says it was a privilege to work with the patients.

“Looking back, you share the journey with the patient. When they have a good day, you have a good day. They come into hospital and you don’t know them from a bar of soap. They trust us with their life.”

She acknowledges it takes a special kind of person to work with people who are in such a vulnerable time of their lives.

“We’ve got to know when to display empathy and sympathy, but at the same time they’ve got to be rehabilitated. Rehabilitation begins from the time of their injury and involves surgeons, nurses and physiotherapists, but ultimately it is the patient who determines the end result,’ she says.

Factors such as wearing pressure garments and splints, doing prescribed exercises, and keeping skin moisturised are all important and sometimes patients need to be pushed to persist with physiotherapy, even when it is uncomfortable.

“It really is a case of being cruel to be kind.”

Ms Steele says she treated all patients equally, regardless of the seriousness of their burns. It has been rewarding seeing former inpatients return to the service for various appointments.

“On my last day a patient that I had nursed years before came back to the unit and donated a computer for the dayroom in appreciation of the care I gave him and other patients. That was very humbling for me,” she says.

Now enjoying a slower paced life with her husband in the Coromandel, Ms Steel says she couldn’t have asked for a better working place.

“It is a wonderful place. You can make such a difference.”