Inspirational Feature Nurse: Merryn Barker

Merryn is a superstar Nurse, having achieved an immense amount in just 13 years. The vast majority in ICU, across multiple organisations. After two years on the wards, Merryn identified she was longing for more time to spend at the bedside with her patients, to draw more attention to details and tend to her patients care and their families every need. She also thrives off the higher acuity, stimulation and technology within the ICU.

I had the privilege of sitting down with Merryn, to gain insight into her motivated, passionate mind.

Amy: Hi Merryn, what do you do every day to stay well?

Merryn: As a new mum to a one year old, I find it’s challenging to fit everything into one day. Though I do relate to the analogy of a safety demonstration in an aeroplane, I know I need to look after myself first before I can look after anyone else. And my baby needs me to be well, and I need to be well to keep on going to work. So, I do mindfulness exercises everyday, I go for a walk with my son and my dog every day, and that’s about as much as I can regularly fit in at this stage of life. I also organise healthy meals in advance, as we are eating as a family now. I want my baby to eat healthily, which means I need to eat healthily too. There are some days I would like to eat fish and chips, but I can’t feed my baby that, so I may as well eat the healthy food too myself.

Amy: What a beautiful role model you are Merryn, for your baby and for others too. Have there been any major challenges you had to overcome in your career?

Merryn: I guess I would see the challenge of being amongst multiple great applicants for higher positions in my experience within ICU. If I was to compare my journey as an ICU nurse to someone who had chosen a different speciality practise perhaps on a surgical ward, clinicians of relatively similar skills, and experience were in high management positions. Compared to an ICU nurse who was still years away from reaching those career and financial milestones, because of the competitiveness within the speciality. And, particularly because I have completed my master’s degree, and expanded my experience doing multiple additional roles.

I also did experience a slightly stressful period in my life when I was completing my master’s degree and new to the role of an ICU liaison nurse. Though looking back, I wouldn’t see that as a challenge, but as a time when I had to be very efficient about my time..

Amy: Beautiful, and can you elaborate more on your perspective on life as an ICU nurse?

Merryn: Sure, I feel very privileged and lucky to work as a nurse in the ICU, I find, it is always important to remember we are not the patient in the bed having the worst day of their life. Or the relative at the bedside of their loved ones, wondering if they will pull through. At the end of the day, I walk out and I appreciate that I am healthy, and my family is healthy. I am grateful that even a bad day for me is still much better than what my patients and their families are experiencing. And this is great perspective to never sweat the small stuff!

Amy: So right, it is all relative! You have achieved so much in your career already, what would you attribute your success to?

Merryn: I’m a hard worker, I am always thinking about how things can be improved within the health care system, and in the environment in which I work. So, I probably take on problems that don’t technically belong to me. I constantly ask myself how systems can work more efficiently, optimally and that attitude has helped me achieve great things and expand myself into roles of; clinical risk coordinator, ICU liaison nurse and within the patient deterioration team as well as academia and facilitating seminars. I have been to so many MET calls, and applied my master’s studies to the ideas of “what could go wrong?” that I continue to gain an appreciation of supportive systems, where if I was to make a slip, or an error, that that error would not cause harm to the patient.

And that means reflecting on the systems of the health care organisation. So I like the “Swiss Cheese” model, and I also like the “Bucket model” also by James Reason. By asking questions of yourself such as;

-          How are you feeling today?

-          Are you at risk of more errors because you are tired and you haven’t slept?

-          How junior is our team today?

All concepts are contributing to “Filling Buckets” and it is the days that our buckets are overflowing, that we need to apply a heightened awareness to our behaviour, as errors are more likely to occur under those circumstances.

Amy: Because we are human beings?

Merryn: Yes! We are only human and humans do make mistakes and have poor judgement at times. We need to have healthcare organisations that support staff work at their best – by rostering safely to avoid fatigue and manage skill mix, encourage a healthy workplace with a non-punitive attitude to risk and that supports staff by making it difficult to make the wrong decision.

Amy: If you were to give any words of wisdom to “young Merryn” in her Grad year… Merryn:

1.       Salary packaging, do it! From day one.

2.       Find a mentor!

The reason I became an ICU nurse was because I saw Carmel Taylor (An ICU Nurse Consultant) when I was working on the ward, who had so much intelligence, insight and seemed like she could predict the future for patients. So, finding someone who inspires you, to talk with you and develop a plan to move forward in your career would be my advice.

Amy: Congratulations, on your career thus far. Is there anything else you would like to add?

Merryn: We all need to look after each other, as colleagues within a team. And I know Amy you have spoken about how nurses have poorer health than the general population, and I think particularly for ICU nurses, we often are perfectionists and do worry a lot and take our work home with us.  

I suppose it comes down to taking your time to get to know your co-workers, and supporting them where you can. As we must nurture our young.