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WÜRST NÜRSE, aka ‘the world’s best and only nurse punk band’

Self-described as ‘the world’s best and only nurse punk band’, Melbourne-based five-piece WÜRST NÜRSE are a nurse band in name and in practice.

The group formed in 2016 as an outlet for its five members – Steph Butigan, Abbie Laderman, Anna Stein, Morgan Sterley and Nikki Arris, all working registered nurses and union members – to ‘not only to write funny songs but also to express the struggles and frustration nurses face working in healthcare’, says lead singer Steph.

In January, WÜRST NÜRSE released their new single, I’m Not Your Punching Bag, a stoner rock / early 90s riot girl hybrid that’s as much a song about the occupational violence and aggression (OVA) healthcare workers regularly face as it is a rallying cry for nurses, midwives and their colleagues who are working overtime to fight this pandemic. The video that accompanies the song was filmed during lockdown during 2021 and showcases self-filmed footage of actual nurses who worked on the frontline.

A cathartic creative outlet

Although balancing their work with five rotating rosters is ‘probably one of the more difficult things we face being a band of nurses’, Steph says the challenge is worth it ‘because rocking out on stage is the best feeling ever, as well as a much-needed respite for us.’

This is a common theme. Writing music, Steph says, is a cathartic experience for all of them. ‘We all come from different backgrounds of acute nursing and face a lot of challenges within our roles. Music allows us to vent our emotions – whether it’s frustration, empathy or just needing to shake off some silliness and have a laugh. We also feel so lucky to have each other for support; WÜRST NÜRSE truly is our therapy.’

While some of their songs are more light-hearted (Hot Doctor and Hot Surgeon are self-explanatory; Hot Brown Rain is about ‘number eight on the Bristol Stool Chart’), I’m Not Your Punching Bag and earlier song Dedication Doesn’t Pay the Rent take on more serious subjects.

‘We are incredibly passionate about what we do and draw inspiration from the good and the bad of our healthcare experience,’ Steph explains. ‘These particular songs are to raise awareness to the struggles that nurses continue to face, despite the amazing work of the nurses in 1986 who protested for the better working conditions we have today.’

‘We deserve enough support at work to feel safe, and our pay should reflect the risks we are exposed to on a daily basis. Dedication does not pay the rent, unfortunately.’

I’m Not Your Punching Bag is a song that Steph personally feels very emotional and passionate about as a mental health nurse. ‘Throughout this pandemic, public mental health services have been pushed to the back of the priority list,’ she notes. ‘I have seen a lack of support, services and systems for those with mental illness – and unfortunately this results in increased assaults on staff. Research has found that up to 95 per cent of healthcare workers have experienced verbal or physical assault at work,’ she says, referencing Work Safe Victoria.

Furthermore, Steph notes that as frontline workers they ‘are sick of being glorified as “heroes”, which fails to recognise our needs as people. We deserve enough support at work to feel safe, and our pay should reflect the risks we are exposed to on a daily basis. Dedication does not pay the rent, unfortunately.’

By nurses, for nurses

The video for I’m Not Your Punching Bag speaks directly to this issue. ‘We wanted this video to be in solidarity with all our nursing comrades who may have faced abuse and assault throughout their career,’ Steph explains. ‘During lockdown we did a call-out via our social media for nurses to submit videos of themselves stating our lyrics: “Respect Your Nurse. Respect Our Work.” The nurses really got into it with great passion and creativity. We write our songs for nurses, so to see so many want to take part truly warmed our little hearts.’

While writing songs for nurses and carers, Steph says the band hopes their songs raise awareness amongst non-nursing fans of the harsh realities of frontline healthcare work at the moment. ‘This is such a difficult time for nurses, midwives and personal care workers, and what we are trying to get across is the emotion, hard work, dedication and passion that is undervalued and unrecognised at times.

‘Wearing PPE for 12 hours while we care for extremely unwell patients is incredibly stressful and we want our nurse colleagues to know that we are bringing attention to this. We want to band our voices together, generate camaraderie and help to mend the serious lack of morale in the workplace at the moment. We want nurses to laugh, rock out and blow off steam with our music. But most importantly, our message is to stand up against mistreatment. Assault is never okay, and we want to expose that this IS occurring to nurses who are already burnt out from the pandemic.’

Code Brown

The song being released in the middle of a Pandemic Code Brown obviously adds to the band’s rostering and scheduling challenges when it comes to promotion, but Steph remains sanguine. ‘This is such an unpredictable time. It’s difficult to plan anything when events are cancelled time and time again. The music industry is really suffering at the moment. But our intentions are to push through it and put together a gig at The Gasometer Hotel on 7 May, showcasing some of Melbourne’s incredible bands and hoping to put a big smile on a scene that desperately needs to be nursed back to health. Fingers crossed it can go ahead!’

While each member of WÜRST NÜRSE finds their own ways to cope with the stress that is life as a working nurse right now, Steph says it is their camaraderie and support for each other that makes the biggest difference. ‘We are so lucky that we have each other. We empower each other, we build each other up, we learn from one another and we are all so dedicated and passionate about what we do. We are like family and nothing will ever break that, not even this damn pandemic! It’s only made us stronger.’

And they have a message for their colleagues across the state, and the nation: ‘to all of our wonderful nursing family: we see you, we stand with you, we love you and we support you. Thank you for everything; we will get through this together and we will keep advocating for you.’