Meet Senior Nurse Leader and Educator Elizabeth (Matters) Tollenaere (FACN) who is currently living in Germany.

She is the Inaugural Chair of the International Nursing Community of Interest for the Australian College of Nursing (ACN). She has recently also been elected as a National Board Member of the German Nursing Association (DBfK). After years of working as a Midwife and Cardiac Nurse Educator, in 2016, she decided to expand her professional experience by working overseas and relocated to Germany. Initially working as a medical assistance nurse, supporting foreigners who were hospitalised in Germany, she now has moved back into education and taken up a teaching position in a nursing training institution.

Biggest challenges you faced in 2020 as a Nurse Educator in Germany? 

During COVID-19, we have experienced three waves of infection spikes with over 3.5 million cases and over 90 000 deaths so far (at time of writing). Even though the population is more than three times larger than Australia, you can still see how significant the pandemic is here.  We experienced approximately 8 months of partial or total lockdown over the last 15 months.

Our challenge was to continue to deliver the lessons to the students despite a ban on in-person classes and long periods where we could not visit the hospitals. We have just come out of a 5 month period of delivering almost all lessons over online platforms to students at home. It has been very challenging for staff and students but everyone has shown great resilience and determination to keep education going.

How does nursing in Germany compare to Australia?

Nursing in Germany operates in quite a different professional context in comparison to Australia. Initial training is delivered in a hospital-based apprenticeship system over three years with intermittent blocks of theoretical classes amidst much larger blocks of practical training. The basic entry-level of education is Year 10, so a lot of our students are very young when they start their practice.

University courses are available as additional education, usually in specific areas of further study such as nursing education, management or research. The number of nurses with a university education is very small. Professional regulation in the form of self-governing nursing boards is only in initial development. Nurses also tend to care for more patients in the clinical setting in comparison to Australia.

You have a passion for aspects of multi-cultural communication in nursing?

Our student population is extremely multicultural with very many language, cultural and religious groups represented. We have many students who learn in their second language and significant numbers who have not been in Germany for very long. This creates a really rich environment for the discussion of themes such as the meaning of illness and health, culturally appropriate care and ethical issues.

I believe that in studying nursing, our students begin to consider and question their own views on many important life issues and learn from their patients and classmates. Naturally, it is helpful that I also represent another cultural background as I can share my own experiences in relocating and the Australian perspective on nursing care and professional issues.

How vital were mentors to your career?

Mentors both in my workplace and through professional organisations such as ACN and the German Nursing Association have been absolutely vital to my career and have opened many doors. I have modelled my own practice on aspects of my mentor’s work or communication style which I admired and it was for that reason that I decided to be an ACN mentor myself to give back to the next generation of nurses. I really enjoy working with students and early career nurses as they take the first steps into the profession.

Where do you see yourself in the next 5-10 years?

It is really difficult to say but I would like to think that I will still be working on international collaborations in the intercultural, professional identity and midwifery spaces. The exact form remains open because I enjoy clinical, educational, managerial and academic work and refuse to restrict my practice to only one area but I imagine that education and mentoring will play a role in some form.

If you could tell your junior nursing self anything, what would it be?

Your passion to help people does not negate the need for self-care.

I had to learn the hard way that pushing my body to the limit was not sustainable and made me unwell. It is hard to realise that your personal efforts cannot compensate for a sometimes overburdened system but it is also important to see that sacrificing your own health for this aim ultimately harms yourself, your personal life and potentially your patient’s safety.

What would be your key takeaway messages?

This profession offers you a lifetime of amazing opportunities if you are brave enough to make changes and keep challenging yourself. Don’t allow others to put limits on you or discourage you from pursuing your interests. If you are physically or emotionally exhausted, take a break from the area you are in and find another way to contribute for a while. If you want to change specialities, combine work in different fields, go overseas or do research or further study, just do it!

We need nurses who are motivated, confident and excited by what they do. Make sure that through your wish to help others, you are also continuing to nourish your own goals and dreams. You will continue to love your profession and your patients and colleagues will benefit from the enthusiasm you bring to your work.