Fighting the urge to fall asleep in class is something most students joke about, but for Kaija Mitcheson, it was a reality that impacted her life for six years and affected her time studying to become a nurse.
At 18 years old, Kaija became sick with chronic illness which left her constantly in pain.
“I felt like an 80-year-old riddled with arthritis and couldn’t walk a block without needing to take a break. I lost work because I was just too sick and was on 20 medications a day at one point,” Kaija explained.
After completing year 10 and 12 at TAFE along with a Certificate IV in Pathology and Certificate III in Aged Care, Kaija commenced a Bachelor of Nursing at the University of Newcastle with support from the AccessAbility program following her diagnosis.
“The support I received at university was the only way I was able to finish my degree. I would literally fall asleep in class and struggled to walk across campus, but the staff were so amazing because I let them know and we had an open dialogue.
“I dropped a unit of study each semester to make my load more manageable and I wouldn’t have gotten through my degree without the allowances, extensions, exam changes and support networks – both at home and at university,” Kaija said.
An interest in science initially led Kaija down the path of lab work, where she worked as a pathology courier for a year collecting biological specimens before changing to a role with more patient exposure.
“Working as a dental assistant is where I realised I really liked patient contact. I enjoyed being able to help someone in a time when they were at their most vulnerable and I could help ease their anxiety,” Kaija said.
Despite studying health when she was at her sickest, Kaija did not let that stand in her way of pursuing a career in nursing and now draws on her experience to inform her own practice.
“I can relate to people when they are in pain and understand that it can take them a little bit longer to do things themselves. When you’re sick, people tend to take over for you but staying independent is really important, so I try to support patients and their families through that process as best I can,” she said.
Her debilitating condition was resolved in 2016 and she finished her last year of university in 2017, a period that she refers to as the transition between sick Kaija to healthy Kaija.
Kaija is now based at Gloucester Soldiers’ Memorial Hospital, living independently for the first time and experiencing a range of clinical situations.
“I love it here. I work on a medical ward that also has a maternity section at one end and palliative care at the other, so I feel really honoured that I get to experience life and death and everything in between,” she said.
Kaija is one of millions of nurses who will be recognised on International Nurses Day 2018 on Saturday May 12.
This year’s theme, A voice to lead – Health is a human right, also aligns closely with Kaija’s ultimate goal of specialising in sexual health and increasing access to education around general healthcare.
“Access to affordable healthcare is so important, but so is access to education around your own healthcare. If you don’t have the knowledge of what’s normal and what’s not normal, it can make a great difference to people’s health in terms of seeking treatment at an appropriate time or accessing other allied health services,” she explained.
“High school is an opportunity to better inform men and women about sexual health education. No-one wants to talk about it, but with the right information, people would be able to avoid diseases and infections that are mostly preventable,” she added.
After suffering from years of exhaustion and pain, Kaija is now focusing her renewed energy on those that need it most, with her sights set on improving the wellbeing of communities near and afar.
This year marks the 40th anniversary of medicine at the University of Newcastle, with an opening event being held on Thursday, May 17 to celebrate the achievements and graduates from within the Faculty of Health and Medicine.