Flying high as an ICU nurse

Barry Somerset traded his Navy uniform for hospital scrubs

When Barry Somerset traded his Navy uniform for hospital scrubs, he thought his days of overseas travel might be numbered. But since taking up Intensive Care Unit (ICU) nursing, he has flown to the United States, Japan, Fiji and Australia to bring critically ill New Zealanders home.

He also helps transfer patients via helicopter and plane to hospitals throughout New Zealand from Hawke’s Bay Hospital where he is an Associate Clinical Nurse Manager in ICU.

“Transferring patients to and from overseas and within New Zealand is a varied and challenging job. It can be very stressful and difficult, but is also interesting and very rewarding,” he says.

“When we transfer a patient within New Zealand I have to assess the patient, make a plan and organise the equipment needed for the transport such as a monitor and ventilator, as well as the necessary medication to maintain the patient’s condition.

“When we retrieve a patient from overseas, we are flying with an unstable ventilated patient whose condition can change. This heightens stress levels because the only equipment available is what’s on the plane and if it runs out, you’re in trouble. You have to forward think about what could go wrong during the flight and prepare for the worst, however thankfully I haven’t yet been in that scenario.

“Getting the patient safely to the other end of the journey is immensely satisfying and keeps me going back for more.”

In his current role, Somerset manages 12 nursing and support staff and day-to-day staffing duties, allocates staff to patients, troubleshoots patient and technology issues, helps care for patients, looks after admissions and discharges, undertakes office administration and staff performance reviews, and attends quality meetings. He also teaches basic skill courses to junior and senior nurses.

“I enjoy the variety I get from nursing. It can be a difficult job and there are distressing aspects to the job but the best part is seeing patients’ health improve and getting them out of ICU onto the general ward.”

Somerset grew up in Whangarei before joining the Navy as a medic – a role he enjoyed for five years.

Initially he was based in the Navy Hospital in Devonport, looking after patients in the surgical and medical wards.

His first overseas deployment was as a medic on board the HMNZS Monawai to the Pacific Islands where the ship undertook hydrographic mapping of the seabed, following a storm and an unplanned search and rescue operation.

He then worked as a medic at Linton Army Camp for three months before being deployed to the North Arabian Gulf on board HMNZS Wellington.

“Our role was to stop contraband being smuggled into and out of Iraq. I was responsible (under supervision and guidance from a senior medic) for the health welfare of the crew, vaccinations, health and safety, general ailments of the crew, as well as ensuring the appropriate evacuation of serious ill patients to more suitable medical care. I also had the opportunity to be part of the internal security force, to protect the ship from intrusion threats, such as pirates and other, potential assailants.”

Somerset left the Navy and relocated to Napier and where he worked as a painter for ten years. With overseas travel still beckoning, he moved to the UK for the traditional Kiwi overseas experience and then back to New Zealand before deciding to study a Bachelor of Nursing at Wintec in 2004.

“My favourite aspect of studying at Wintec was the primary healthcare pathway. I undertook clinical placements in Whitianga which was fantastic. I learnt how different agencies work in the community and had my first experience working in ICU which I loved.”

“As an ICU nurse you have to be a jack of all trades and be good at all of them. Every day is a challenge.”

After graduating, he began work as a nurse in Hawke’s Bay Hospital’s graduate programme, in its ICU unit, where he met his partner Bronwyn, who is also an ICU nurse.

After ten years as a staff nurse, Somerset was promoted to Associate Clinical Nurse Manager, a role he has held for the last three years.

As a male working in a female-dominated profession, he says he regularly faces old-fashioned gender stereotypes.

“It doesn’t bother me. When you’re at work, you’re a nurse first and a man or woman second.”

As well as juggling shift work – which he says you never get used to – life is busy with three children and a 15-acre lifestyle block.

Find out more about studying nursing at Wintec.

This year, 2020 is the Year of the Nurse and the Midwife. This story is part of a series where nurses and midwives who have graduated from or worked with Wintec tell their stories.

Read more:
A passion for Maori health sees study mates become workmates
Midwife says New Zealand has the best training in the world
Experience is the best teacher for this nurse educator


Year of the Nurse and the Midwife 2020