For almost a decade Les Thusi, a psychiatric nurse has confounded any number of stereotypes about what nurses should be
Close your metaphorical eyes for a second and picture a man, the muscular kind. When, not at his day job, this imaginary man moonlights as a personal trainer, rides a super bike, waxes lyrical about his love for ice skating and enjoys a spot of skydiving. Now try think of his occupation. What type of profession would get this South African reincarnation of Evel Knievel, out of bed in the morning with a smile on his face? The answer, it turns out, is nursing.
For almost a decade Les Thusi, a psychiatric nurse has confounded any number of stereotypes about what nurses should be. As a general rule, health professionals are not the ones one expects to voluntarily pitch themselves out of planes or weave through traffic at high speed on a two
wheeled death trap. Moreover, very few people expect nurses to be men. “People get shocked when they meet me and I tell them what I do. They say I don’t look the part. Apparently there is a certain way that psychiatric nurses dress and do things and I don’t fit that mould,” says Thusi.
A psychiatric nurse is one that specialises in mental health care. What people mean when they say Thusi “doesn’t look like a nurse” is that he is not female. The idea that nurses should be women is so deep rooted in our society that you would be hard pressed to find a five-year-old who wouldn’t tell you that nursing is a “lady job”. The thing is that wasn’t always true. Before Florence Nightingale came on the scene, the sight of male nurses was no more surprising than seeing a four legged cow. Male nursing was so commonplace that even famous American poet Walt Whitman tried his hand at it during the American Civil War.
During the Crimean War in 1854, Nightingale found herself caring for wounded soldiers and her experience changed patient care forever. She became the mother of modern nursing and one of the most important rules in her house was that nurses should be women. It is an idea that has stuck like chewing gum in uncombed hair and one that even Thusi was not immune to.
“My aunt was the one to suggest I try nursing and at the time, I didn’t really like the idea for the same reasons as most men wouldn’t. I decided to just do it because I had already taken a gap year and needed to do something,” he says. Thanks to that nudge from his aunt, Les Thusi embarked on a four- year course in nursing that would see him become a registered psychiatric nurse in 2012 and as is often the case with the things our elders tell us to do, It turns out that this aunt may have been more prescient than either of them realised.
The 4th Industrial Revolution is upon us, along with a lot of hysteria about robots taking our jobs. To be honest not all of that panic is unfounded. A Bloomberg article released last year suggests that more than 120 million workers worldwide will need to be retrained in the next three years as a combination of robots, algorithms and apps make a lot of our existing skillsets obsolete.
A 2018 report by the World Economic Forum on the Future of Jobs echoes this sentiment stating that “the Fourth Industrial Revolution is interacting with other socio-economic and demographic factors to create a perfect storm of business model change in all industries, resulting in major disruptions to labour markets. New categories of jobs will emerge, partly or wholly displacing others. The skillsets required in both old and new occupations will change in most industries and transform how and where people work”. While all of that may not bode well for those of us who type or work on computers for a living, there a number of career paths that it seems robots won’t be able to get the hang of in the near future. One of them is nursing.
“A lecturer of mine used to tell me that nursing is the art of care. So as psychiatric nurses we don’t just treat the condition, we treat the patient, holistically. A machine can tell that a person is in pain but it can’t tell how a person feels about that pain,” says Thusi.
According to a 2016 Oxford University study on the future of work and how susceptible certain jobs are to computerisation, nursing is one of the forms of employment that Siri is least likely to be able to wrap her voice-activated brain around. That’s because it requires a skillset that isn’t easily programmable. You can probably teach your Apple Watch how to do accounting but getting it to be empathetic and patient with someone who has lost their grip on reality is a much trickier task.
“Let’s say the patient is seeing things, hearing or believing things that are not true. The last thing you want to do is argue with them. The most important thing is to diminish those thoughts and fears using techniques that help them come back toward reality on their own and in a non-threatening way,” says Thusi.
Dealing with extreme cases of mental illness is not just as simple as just being an empath or a particularly friendly Huffelpuff. As with a lot of jobs in the medical profession you’re likely to interact with the kinds of things and people that create lasting trauma. Where most of us may pop out for a drink after work to ease the stress of the day, Thusi needs something a little more potent to help him manage work stress. That’s where the thrill seeking comes in. “For me to cope with everything in my life, I’ve learnt to compartmentalise my personal and professional life. The joy of my job is that it teaches you how to create your own happiness and how to be mindful of the things that you do in your life. You learn how to take responsibility for your own happiness.”.
For him that means seeing how far he can get his speedometer to lean to the right or how fast he can glide on the ice. While it may not be everyone’s cup of tea, as coping mechanisms go, there are definitely worse ones. Perhaps part of the problem with nursing and the stereotypes behind it is that when people think of nurses, they tend to only think of changing bedpans and cleaning bedsores. In a sense we’re stuck in a Florence Nightingale perception of a profession that has spent more than a century advancing. The nurses of today come in all flavours, from emergency room nurses to travel nurses, ICU nurses, psychiatric and paediatric ones too. Moreover there is no genitalia requirement. “In the same way that there shouldn’t be a problem with a female being a cop, a businesswoman or in anything in any male-dominated industry, no one should bat an eyelid at the idea of a male nurse,” says Thusi.
Couple that with a worldwide nursing shortage, the fact that it is a career path that confuses robots and doesn’t require you to get 23 distinctions in matric and one begins to see that while it may not have been the obvious choice, getting a job as a nurse may just be a really good one.