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Zule Khan

Zule Khan

Triage! therapy for nurses

With her doctor father and nurse mother running a surgery from the family home, Zuleika (Zule) Khan, grew up surrounded by patients.

‘I feel like I’ve been nursing since I was a little girl,’ Ms Khan said. She also began performing at a young age, starting with dance lessons at the age of three.

While she took her parents’ advice to become a nurse in order to have a financially stable career option, Ms Khan never gave up the dream of a life on the stage.

‘My parents also encouraged me to do piano lessons from a very young age… they always had me doing these kinds of (artistic) things but I don’t think they realised I’d want to pursue it professionally,’ Ms Khan laughed.

Ms Khan was talking on the phone in Perth where she was performing in the play Avenue Q. But it is her one-woman cabaret show Triage!, which pays homage to her other career, drawing upon her own experiences as a nurse – as well as those of her mother and her best friend, who at 24 worked as an emergency triage nurse at a major hospital.

‘What prompted me to write Triage! was seeing how the responsibility of such a job on a young person really heavily affected my friend and I also know what my mum’s like when she’s stressed, having to deal with the responsibility of being a nurse and caring for people full time,’ she said. ‘I very clearly see the toll that these positions take.

‘I think triage nursing is the epitome of what we do, why we’re valuable and what makes us so important in the hospital system and I just want people to understand that more.’

But initially, Ms Khan wrote Triage! to make nurses like her best friend and her mother laugh.

‘When you’re working full-time night shift, for example, and the whole world doesn’t seem to make sense anymore and your body doesn’t know what’s going on… and you’re saving the best parts of your mind to work in the hospital so you don’t kill anyone, it is a bit depressing… we’re dealing with some harsh things.’

‘At my parents’ surgery I’ve always talked to the patients and I could always make them laugh. It made them feel better even if they were in pain or depressed; I could always make them laugh by telling them a joke or doing a little dance.

‘Comedy is such a powerful therapeutic tool.’

Ms Khan started her career in Sydney, first as an assistant in nursing (in Victoria, known as a personal care worker) at an aged care facility. After becoming a registered nurse, Ms Khan worked at Westmead Hospital in Western Sydney doing her postgraduate study with placements in respiratory, surgical and emergency wards before moving to Melbourne in 2006.

She worked as a nurse part time at the Alfred Hospital in orthopaedic and trauma while studying at the Victorian College of the Arts. Switching between these two very different worlds was a surreal experience. On the same day, Ms Khan would be nursing a 16-year-old girl who had had half her leg removed after being in a car accident and then she would go to the Victorian College of the Arts and sing in West Side Story. When she tried to talk with her fellow VCA students about her nursing world, she would get blank looks and the distinct impression they thought doctors were the only important people in the hospital.

‘I realised that not only did the people I did musical theatre with have no idea what nurses do, neither did the general public and I was so frustrated by that.

‘I want to stand up for my mum. I get so angry when people don’t realise how important my mum’s job is and how much she cares about it and how much of her life she gives.’