A patient is a person with a story
For someone who was once scared of needles and blood, Sharmalie Wijesinghe makes a good nurse. An excellent nurse, in fact, who was named a finalist in Palliative Care Australia’s National Palliative Care Awards 2021 in recognition of her significant contributions to the field.
It was her father’s mixed experience with care when he was battling cancer that helped Sharmalie overcome her fears almost two decades ago. She was in her early 30s and teaching at a primary school she’d started in Sri Lanka.
“When my dad was admitted to hospital, I would ask, ‘How was your night? How was yesterday?’” says Sharmalie. The response from her father was mixed, and Sharmalie realised the nurses played a huge role in his day-to-day experience.
“As time went on, I realised that nursing is not all about technique. We use pumps, canulas, needles – but there is something else to nursing, which is about how to talk to the patient, how to approach the patient, how to have a therapeutic relationship with the patient, how to connect to the patient and to their family too.
“I thought, I can get past my fears… I can learn how to see blood, how to get used to the needles and giving injections. Those things I can learn because there is something else to nursing.”
Something greater than herself
After her father passed away, her mother moved to the UK to live with her two sisters, and despite having two young children at home Sharmalie moved mountains to study nursing.
She tried to enrol in Sri Lanka, but universities wouldn’t accept her as she was “too old”. Next, she looked at universities in the UK, but they weren’t taking international students at the time. Then she went to a migration agency and they recommended Australia, and specifically Australian Catholic University (ACU).
Sharmalie was accepted into a Diploma in Nursing at ACU’s Melbourne Campus in 2004 – with a start date a mere four days after she received her acceptance email.
“My two children were babies, but I needed to be a nurse too,” she recalls. “So, I booked a flight and organised everything in a couple of days. I didn’t know where to go, I didn’t know where ACU was – all I knew was I had to go to Melbourne.
“I felt like someone was pushing me to do this. I think back… and… how did I do that? But I packed my bags, I went to the airport, I got on the plane, and I was crying because I could see my children outside. And my husband said, ‘Don’t worry. This is what you want to do, you do it, we will come soon.’”
Sharmalie’s husband wasn’t the only one backing her dream. Her family was behind her too and one of her sisters, a nurse in the UK, supported her studies financially because their father had told her before he passed that Sharmalie needed to be a nurse.
Fronting up to the challenge
Sharmalie was motivated, but the reality of being in an unfamiliar country alone was grim for someone who had only travelled overseas once before with her family. The day she landed was difficult – she was lost, arrived late to an unwelcoming homestay host, and had an 8am start at ACU the next day.
“I was so sad. I missed my children, I was lost – I didn’t know what to do.”
After a sleepless night and an unnecessary hour-long taxi trip, Sharmalie was two hours early for her appointment with the international student coordinator. His kindness that day sticks in her memory.
“I think his name was Adrian. He came and he said, ‘You look so sad.’ I told him my story, he said, ‘I am so sorry, we will support you, we will guide you through – do not worry about anything. Treat this as your second home, we will support you.’ You won’t believe what a comfort that was. I was so happy.”
Still, homesickness set in a few weeks later and Sharmalie was considering quitting her course and returning to Sri Lanka.
“I was walking to class in my third week, head bowed, and one of the lecturers, Christine Smith, stopped me. She asked me my name and said, ‘You didn’t come to class yesterday afternoon, I was waiting for you.’ I told her I skipped class as I was thinking of going back to Sri Lanka because I miss my children.
“She said, ‘No, I’m not going to let you do that. You need to stay here, because of yourself, because of your children, because of your family, you’re going to stay here and you’re going to study nursing. Any issues – you’re going to come talk to me.’”
Meeting senior nurse and educator Christine, who has now left ACU, was a turning point. Sharmalie stayed. Six months later, she brought her husband and children to Melbourne, they found a one-bedroom rental and, while money was extremely tight, Australia started to feel like home.
“Christine is my mentor who has been there from the beginning, directing me and supporting me,” says Sharmalie.
“With her encouragement, in my final year I applied for the Order of Malta Palliative Care Excellence Award for highest academic achievement in Melbourne – and was awarded it.
“I felt like, OK, someone is telling me, this is where I should go, this is what I should do.”
Determination and respect
Sharmalie did her graduate year at Cabrini Health Palliative Care, a Catholic private hospital, in 2010. She still works there two days a week as a Clinical Nurse Specialist, and for the past year she has also worked as a Palliative Care Educator with St Vincent’s Hospital Melbourne – Caritas Christi Hospice.
Well regarded by her peers and patients, Sharmalie was the only Victorian nurse to become a finalist in the general palliative care category of the National Palliative Care Awards 2021.
But after 12 years of such emotionally draining work, she’s ready to move into a new area. Sharmalie, who already holds a Graduate Certificate in Palliative Care from ACU, plans to study a Master of Education relating to palliative care through ACU next year.
“I want to go into education because I think, at this point in my life I have so much to share,” she says. “Now I need to pass my knowledge and experience on to junior nurses.”
She also wants to encourage senior nurses and managers to give constructive feedback to junior nurses, support their professional development, and provide opportunities for them to bring their knowledge and experience to the health care team as every nurse has something to offer.
“The theory you can learn. I can teach you how to do an injection. But there is so much more to nursing: communication, approach, empathy.
“Those things are really important and sometimes nurses forget them. They think oh, medication, injection, paperwork, that’s it – I’ve done my duty, I’m going. But the way you give medication to the patient is more powerful.
“I always think a patient is a person with a story. You need to find time to listen to them, make them feel that you are there for them, provide reassurance… look after them the same way you want a family member to be looked after.”
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