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Forty years a nurse: meet Mel Carron

Forty years a nurse: meet Mel Carron

Hazi Nagel, Mel Carron and Jem Light at the 2023 delegates conference. Photo: Christopher Hopkins

ANMF (Vic Branch) Councillor and third-generation nurse Mel Carron was adamant they’d never follow their grandmother and mother into nursing. This year is their 40th anniversary as a nurse.

Mel graduated from the now-closed Melbourne School for Enrolled Nurses – which offered paid hospital training – in 1984. ‘I was out of work, so I thought: I’ll get paid to do that [nursing] and I’ll do it for a bit or until something better comes along. But nothing better did come along, because it’s an amazing job.’

Mel, who uses the pronouns they/them, initially trained in neurology and after exploring many other areas of nursing returned to that field where they have now worked in the same unit for 25 years. The clinical changes in that time have been astounding, they say. ‘It’s almost a different profession these days.’

Early on it was incredibly tough, but it was Mel’s mother who encouraged them to keep at it – despite their youthful desire to not follow in her footsteps. Indeed, Mel soon realised their ‘Mum was one of the most remarkable nurses’ they’d ever come across and have dedicated their career to practising in a similar way.

‘She practised nursing in her day as we practise now,’ they explain. ‘She practised patient-centred care when that was unheard of; she embraced inclusiveness when that was unheard of. She truly was a role model who showed me a different way; a way I liked better. I think that helped me stick it out through those earlier years when I was being screamed at, again, because my quilt was half an inch too far off the floor or something.’

Screamed at?

‘Yes. I don’t think many younger nurses realise how much it’s changed. When I was a young nurse, you were basically a doctor’s servant; you just had to shut up and do what you were told. So to see how far we’ve come, and what it’s taken us to change, is really inspiring to me.’

Authenticity and agency

In 40 years as an EN, Mel has consistently put that vision for a better way to nurse into practice – locally, within their workplace and more broadly, as a longstanding ANMF member and Branch Councillor. From mentoring grads and new staff to active engagement in many EBA campaigns, they have stepped up in order to improve conditions for all nurses and midwives. The 2011/12 campaign, in particular, ‘pushed us to the max’ they say. ‘I hope like hell I never have to do that again, but I’m weirdly grateful because I learned so much!’

Clinically speaking, one of the changes Mel has witnessed that excites them most is patient-centred care. ‘Patients are more involved in their own care,’ they say, ‘and it is such a privilege to help empower them to be an active part of that rather than the passive recipient that was a hallmark of my earlier years in the profession. Advanced Care Planning is such a critical part of this and why I’m so passionate about it: heading towards end-of-life is a time when a person’s voice really needs to be heard’.

Enabling patients’ voices and agency is a crucial focus of Mel’s work. As a queer person who transitioned four years ago – ‘I’m now transmasculine/non-binary’ – they still see it over and over again: ‘the queer community, particularly trans/gender diverse folk and older folk, experience significant discrimination. They don’t always engage with health systems readily because of that fear so their health outcomes can be worse.’

This extends to staff too, they note. ‘The health system in general is a very, very challenging place to be your authentic self.’

Homophobia and transphobia have been problematic throughout Mel’s career. It was ‘professional suicide’ to be out when Mel was training – they were threatened with expulsion for wanting to do an assignment on ‘caring for the gay patient’ – and they came close to losing their job at one hospital ‘and had to do the proverbial “midnight run” from an interstate regional hospital because of the threat of violence. Being your authentic self was unheard of, and downright dangerous!’

Finding their (collective) power

While it’s not perfect today, it is better than it was thanks in part to the work and advocacy of people like Mel, who channel their experiences into a passion for changing the system for the better, and for all.

For example, Mel is a trained Nursing and Midwifery Health Program Victoria (NMHPV) Champion. Having battled depression and anxiety for many years, they have personally experienced the stigma and lack of awareness associated with mental health. ‘I could never work that one out, we’re health practitioners for heaven’s sakes!!’

NMHPV Champions help to raise awareness of NMHPV and to highlight positive health information (including mental health) amongst their nursing/midwifery colleagues. Over the years, Mel has seen other staff slowly open up about their own mental health experiences, and ‘NMHPV has definitely been a part of that,’ they say.

Mel’s passion for the profession, and for diversity and inclusion, drove them to stand for Branch Council. ‘When I was talking to people about these issues I often felt like I was just this one little small-fry fish in this huge ocean, thinking: why am I bothering? Until the day I was approached by [former ANMF (Vic Branch) Assistant Secretary] Pip Carew. I was waxing lyrical about WorkChoices legislation, and Pip said: “if you’re not a Job Rep, you should be.” So I became a Job Rep.’

Suddenly, Mel realised they could ‘swim with a whole school of small-fry, and together we could start to make a difference.’

Having got a taste for collective action, Mel wanted to get more involved. They did the Anna Stewart program, during which they got to sit in on a Branch Council meeting. ‘I thought: this is where I could fit in – because I’m a complete nerd, and I love reading hundreds of pages of reports every month!’

The timing was right, so Mel stood for Council and has never looked back. Since 2017, their contribution to Branch Council has been invaluable, as well as personally rewarding: ‘As cheesy as it is, if I had to name one career highlight it would be being on Council,’ they say. ‘The knowledge around that table is awe-inspiring, and you learn so much. And it’s given me a confidence that I never dreamed was possible. I now have the confidence to stand up and be heard, and to do things I’ve always wanted to do.’

As an example, Mel is one of the co-conveners of the recently established ANMF (Vic Branch) LGBTQIA+ reference group. ‘I’d never have done that a few years ago. I would have shat myself if I had to talk to more than four people at once. The confidence to do so now is almost solely from being a Job Rep and being on Branch Council.’

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