‘I hated school,’ says Nola Poulter. ‘I left high school at the end of year 11, and I was not going back.’
Some four decades later, Nola has an honours and a postgraduate degree under her belt; one graduate certificate and another on the way; and she works in research in an emergency department. And as a forensic nurse examiner with the Victorian Institute of Forensic Medicine, Nola’s day-to-day work often involves collecting evidence – a vital research skill.
‘Whether that be DNA, whether it be photography, whether that be a verbal and written report, it’s all related to evidence collection, to fit into the story of that person’s journey,’ she explains.
She also works as a research assistant with a colleague who’s doing a PhD.
Suffice to say, Nola did end up going back to school. When she finished year 12, the only thing she did well in was art – because she spent too much time ‘mucking around’. She got accepted into a visual arts course at university but Nola’s mother, who had completed her nurse training, insisted that visual art was not a real job and encouraged her to apply for hospital-based nurse training instead.
She did, and thrived. Beginning in 1985 at Wangaratta Hospital in one of the last cohorts to go through hospital-based training, Nola found her calling. Her career has since taken her in many directions: she’s worked for private and public hospitals, agencies, hospital in the home services, hospice and the defence force; she’s worked in district nursing, oncology, palliative care, emergency care and more.
A specialist generalist
‘I call myself a specialist generalist,’ she says. ‘I’m the kind of person that if someone opens a door I’ll walk through it. I am one for taking an opportunity if it’s offered to you.’
When her GP suggested she would be a good fit for forensics, Nola jumped at the idea, and took the first opportunity she could to undertake some training – though she notes that it was ‘very, very basic.’
Her varied career background has been great training for the role as well, she says. ‘Having a generalist background is very useful, though having a few extra specialties like sexual health would have been a great additional background to add to my repertoire.’
It’s equally important to have the aptitude for it. A ‘can-do attitude, compassion, pragmatism and the ability to sort fact from fiction, non-judgmentally, are key,’ she says.
‘Working for the Department of Justice is different to working for the Department of Health,’ she explains, ‘because the health needs of victim survivors sit equal to the needs of the justice system. So collection of evidence from a victim or alleged offender is the focus for a forensic nurse examiner.’
Day to day in an on-call basis, Nola works as part of a team including Victora Police, SOCIT (Sexual Offences and Child Abuse Investigation Teams), CASA (Centres Against Sexual Assault), and the courts.
As a nurse, when Nola is brought in she is often able to get information or evidence the police may not have secured. Information from medical evidence, obviously, but also information volunteered to her because she’s a trusted medical professional. ‘Inevitably, when you get there, they haven’t told the police everything. So when you get in there and sit down with them, if you’re able to instantly build a rapport with them then they tell you a lot more.’
The cases generally always involve trauma, and the work can be quite confronting, she acknowledges —especially going to court, though she says she hasn’t had to do that too often.
An art and a science
Asked how she looks after her own mental health and wellbeing, she emphasises the importance of the work. ‘You’re making a difference,’ she says. And in your downtime, ‘do what makes you happy. You get one life, so do what makes you happy; and when you go to work, make a difference.’
Perspective and compassion are also important, she says. ‘I aim to put it all in perspective. Ask: what’s happening with them? What’s their trauma, why is something like this? Be compassionate, but count your blessings too. I don’t mean that in a religious sense, but just be practical about it.’
Another key aspect of the work that Nola loves is the opportunity to learn. ‘It’s not just a science,’ she says, ‘it’s an art and a science, and every day you’re learning something.’
If she had to choose one piece of advice to give anyone starting out, it would be summed up in one word: education, ‘Always education. We know education makes a world of difference at any level in life. Get on and do some online courses or whatever you can access. Just find the education; do some sexual health units, do some emergency units.’
For someone whose initial schooling was not a highlight of their early life, it speaks volumes.