When the little things matter
It has been claimed that developing dementia is the biggest fear for Australians aged over 55 and statistics show it is the second leading cause of death in the country, which is why nurse Liezel Fourie is so committed to making a difference to the lives of patients and their families.
Being named Catholic Health Australia (CHA) Nurse of the Year for 2022 sits a bit uncomfortably for Liezel Fourie, who says one of the greatest rewards in her career is seeing how implementing “little things” can make a “big difference” to the lives of dementia patients in her care.
Growing up in South Africa, Liezel said that while she filled her teenage years reading novels “where the nurse and doctor had a romantic interest”, choosing nursing as a career ran much deeper.
“I have always loved helping people and caring for people, and being able to make a difference, so I wanted to be a nurse,” she explained.
After graduating she fulfilled her passion to be a psychiatric nurse, before moving onto general medical wards in a private hospital, working permanent night shifts.
In 2009, her career took a different direction when she accepted a nursing position at Calvary in Adelaide.
“I am always up for an adventure and so my husband and I decided to go to Australia,” she laughed.
“From day one I felt very supported here. My values resonate with Calvary’s – it starts with respect always, and the care for others.”
It was when she was working on the wards at the old Calvary Wakefield Hospital that Liezel realised how difficult it could be for patients who were admitted for an illness, but were also suffering from dementia. Shared rooms and shared bathrooms added to their confusion, and she felt there had to be some “little things” she could do to support them and their families.
“That is where my interest in dementia grew…what can we do to change, to make the experience for all those involved that bit better,” she said.
“Dementia is not going to go away because of our ageing population, and there are so many things we can do to make a difference.”
Liezel started implementing a few “small things” – such as bed therapy and a ‘fidget’ blanket – and her efforts continued when Calvary moved to its new hospital on Angas Street.
Now, as the clinical manager of Milne Ward, an acute general medical ward, she has overseen the establishment of a ‘bus stop’ in the area. With a painted mural as a backdrop, a bench seat and bus shelter, it serves to calm confused patients who say they want to leave and go home.
As Liezel explained, nursing staff can suggest the patient go sit at the bus stop to wait for their ride home. Family members often sit with them and it becomes a good conversation starter.
Another of Liezel’s ideas was painting a bookshelf on the back of a set of doors which are closed to contain patients who may wander, providing a much more homely atmosphere.
Dementia patients sometimes find it difficult to see “white on white”, so under Liezel’s guidance the ward now provides blue toilet seats for them. In addition, there is regular animal therapy, with many patients warming to a visit from a pet dog.
This month Dementia Australia is also running a two-day workshop for nursing staff from other wards in the hospital to help them become ‘specialists’ in the care of dementia patients. A separate workshop for catering and housekeeping staff will assist them to understand how they can support confused patients.
At the CHA awards ceremony in Brisbane in August, Liezel’s work with dementia patients, as well as her outstanding service during the pandemic, were acknowledged when she received the top nursing honour.
CHA chief executive Pat Garcia described Liezel as a passionate advocate for patients with cognitive impairment.
“She has led, supported, encouraged and managed her staff on Milne Ward at Calvary Adelaide Hospital to take care of some of our most vulnerable patients,” he said.
“Due to her vision and passion, patients with cognitive impairment are getting the best care and experience possible. Liezel is humble and never seeks praise or affirmation from others. She gets in and gets the job done. A quiet achiever, she inspires others with her positive attitude, and friendliness.”
Quietly-spoken Liezel said receiving the award was “really humbling and overwhelming”, and believed it belonged to all the nursing staff on Milne Ward.
“For me, the biggest reward is seeing my staff engaged in the practices,” she said.
“From my office I can listen to how they deal with a confused patient and it is just beautiful to hear. It’s about dignity for the patient and involving their families in their methods.”
She added that providing the extra care sometimes needed for dementia patients in an acute setting couldn’t happen without the support of volunteers. Their assistance was invaluable during particularly busy times when meals are delivered and the impact of having someone available to “just sit with them” couldn’t be overstated.
As well as running the Milne Ward, Liezel is also the lead for accreditation in the areas of Comprehensive Care and Medications.
Calvary’s SA director of Mission, Mark McCarthy, said he was proud of what Liezel had achieved.
“For an acute medical ward, having a dementia care headset and with Liezel’s leadership it’s created a much deeper understanding and sensitivity to people with dementia and their families,” he said.
“Hospitals have dedicated dementia wards and there are memory support units in aged care, but to have that in a general ward is something very significant in terms of our mission to care for others.”
Mr McCarthy said Liezel’s nomination recognised her commitment to go above and beyond her normal duties. For example, during the pandemic she and other registered nurses volunteered to work double shifts – one in the morning at the hospital and then another in the afternoon at Calvary aged care homes that had staff shortages due to COVID outbreaks.
“Having RNs with Liezel’s experience and understanding of dementia in aged care homes was a real blessing,” he said.
Like many organisations, Calvary has experienced a 30 per cent reduction in its volunteer numbers since the pandemic. Anyone interested in volunteering in its hospitals and aged care sites can find more information at www.calvarycare.org.au/careers/sa-volunteers/
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