Home | Specialty Focus | On the front line, twice: conversation with a defence nurse
Photo from AACAP 2014 – entry to health facility. Photo: nursing officer Linda O’Sullivan

On the front line, twice: conversation with a defence nurse

“We'd always get the cocky doctor who wouldn't listen and so the nurses would try a few times and then you'd go, no, let him hang,” Jo Ikin jokes.

“They'd learn by their mistakes. Obviously, we'd never put a patient at risk, but you'd try to advise them.” We are talking about respect and chain of command on the wards, but more specifically in the army.

There is no messing around with Ikin: mother, midwife, marathon runner, nurse and Lt Colonel in the Army’s Joint Health Command.

Ikin originally wanted to go to university to study teaching, but the cost of living away at uni was too much, so she learnt a trade the old way – on the job.

A nurse since the age of 17, Ikin, originally from Victoria, now finds herself based in Canberra reminiscing about a life filled with two careers, as a civilian and now an army nurse.

Starting her training at the Ballarat Base Hospital, Ikin found that learning on the job got her skill levels up quickly.

“It was three years of training, now it’s three years at university, except our ratio of time in the classroom compared to time in the hospital was much different,” she says.

“So, I did my graduate year with people who had gone through the university system. I found that I was a fair way ahead when it came to common sense in the workplace, because I'd been exposed to a lot more.”

But the effect university training has had on the profession has been a big plus.

“I think university's been a good thing, because it has professionalised nursing, and obviously, because we have degrees and things now, our pay system is a little bit higher than what it was when I went through; we didn't get paid very much,” she says.

Ikin left Ballarat for western Sydney’s Liverpool Hospital and the “crazy busy” emergency ward. Then, when her husband who was serving in the military at the time was posted back to Victoria, she ended up at the Women’s Hospital in Melbourne and moved into midwifery.

A move to Wodonga, having her own twins and completing a graduate diploma in child and family health later, Ikin ended up running a teenage parenting clinic.

All of this sounds enough for one career alone, but it was around that time, aged 35, that she had what she describes as her “midlife crisis”.

So, she decided to join the army.

Stranger still, it was at a time when her military husband had just left the forces for his own career change to become a teacher.

“At the age of 35, I had what I call my midlife crisis and decided to do something less stressful than working with teenage parents, so I joined the army full-time,” she laughs again.

“I had already been in defence as a reserve, when I was doing all the nursing stuff, so I sort of did have a taste for it. And I'm an army child; my dad was in the army for 25 years.”

Within her first 12 months, Ikin was posted overseas to East Timor and the United Nations Hospital. There, her unit, along with Singaporeans, Egyptians and Koreans, built a hospital with re-sus capability, theatre capability, two wards and rehab.

“So, it was actually pretty amazing really. It was a wonderful experience. We basically set up a hospital with the United Nations.

"We integrated all the different skillsets that we had in the staffing that we took over there. Then we serviced the United Nations, so all the different countries that were working for the UN at the time would come through our hospital,” she says.

Working with Indigenous communities in the Northern Territory as part of the Army Aboriginal Community Assistance Programme is another highlight of Ikin’s time in the services.

The army goes to a different community each year with engineers and health professionals, building houses, roads, or whatever the community needs.

“It's not overseas, but it's a totally different environment to work in, which was fantastic. And we worked in an area that was 220km from Tennant Creek, and there was a place called Wutunugurra in Canteen Creek, a different community.

“Being a midwife, I was able to go in and help look after all their pregnant women for them and do all their health checks. Before, they normally would send them into Alice Springs to have that done,” she says.

The mid-life crisis seems to have worked out extremely well for Ikin. After initially taking a pay-cut to join the army, Ikin now earns more as an army nurse – her outside experience and natural leadership skills giving her superiority and seeing her rise up the ranks fast.

Joining the army also helped Ikin to fulfill that teaching dream, as it gave her the chance to get a Master in Adult Education and the diverse range of roles a defence nurse can play suited Ikin and  kept her interested.

“We get posted every two to three years to a different role. I think it's something that was really attractive to me because I always get bored after doing the same job for a few years, so the fact that they do post us around, we get to use different skills and learn new things," she says.

“There are lots of different opportunities in defence that you don't get in normal civilian nursing."

Going back to the question of chain of command, Ikin says, much like on a civilian ward, it comes down to respect.

“I think you have a professional respect for each other and what looks good for practices and what your role is, so, obviously, a doctor is going to do the orders and things and I'll carry them out, but if there's something not quite right I'll question that,” she says.

Currently a staff officer, grade 1, for the defence electronic health system, working on policy and training for that system, Ikin isn’t sure what the future holds for her, but, as she turns 55 next year – the age at which defence personnel can collect their pension – retirement looms.

But as different as civilian and defence nursing can be, the reasons to remain in the profession stay the same.

“I really love the patient contact and I think, as a nurse, we're very privileged because we're with people at all sorts of times in their life,” Ikin says.

“We're with them at the worst moments of their life, when they're about to die, we're with them at amazing moments in life when they just had the birth of a child. We get to hold their hand and listen to them, to the things that other people don't get to hear.

“And I just think it's a real privilege to be a nurse and the fact that people trust us so much in the role that we have."

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