Once upon a time, a very long time ago it seems, I was a fourth year History major, English Lit minor at Queens University. For four years, I had taken courses in Shakespeare and Chaucer, Sociology and histories of all types: Chinese, Sub-Sahara African, Middle Eastern, and my all time favorite – Latin American. I had written essays and exams and given oral presentations. I worked hard, studied lots, and read until my eyes were popping out of my head. It was four years of diligent, and intense, schooling. And I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life.
And so I found myself at Stauffer library, late one night, reading through some notes as I prepared for finals, and contemplating the seeming uselessness of this degree I had worked so hard to achieve. I didn’t want to go to teacher’s college. I didn’t want to pursue a masters in History. What was I going to do? The goal had been to graduate. How had I forgotten to look beyond that goal?
I tried to push aside these thoughts and focus on the details in front of me, but I just couldn’t shake the train of thought. And then, out of nowhere, a stray whisper of an idea.
You could be a nurse.
Wait, what? I can’t be a nurse. I’d have to do a bunch more schooling. And I’m so not scientific.
Yes, but you could help people. All those people you’ve been learning about. The ones whose lives have been shattered by years of war, or famine, or disease. You could do something to help.
Over the next few weeks, this idea kept coming back to me. And with it came a growing excitement. So when finals were wrapped up and I headed home, I decided to share my revelation with the most important people in my life.
My parents were the type of people who always said I could do anything I wanted. Singer? Yes. Actress? Yes. Writer? Yes. Teacher? Yes. Journalist? Yes. Yes. Yes.
So, you can see just how off base this idea was when I said to them, “I think I want to be a nurse,” and my dad’s first response was, “You? A nurse?!” And then he laughed. He wasn’t trying to be harsh. It was just that ridiculous of an idea.
So perhaps it was for that reason that I decided to keep it on the back burner and do something completely different for a while. Instead of nursing school, I found myself on an airplane to Afghanistan by the end of the summer. And over the two years I spent there, my eyes were opened to a whole new world. A passion to provide the medical help that people so desperately needed grew in my heart.
It would still be another three years after Afghanistan, years in which I got married, moved across the country, and worked on all those pesky subjects I had never had time for in university (like basic biology), before I would finally find myself sitting in a classroom, ready to learn how to become a nurse.
Nursing school was a whole new level of intense. I’ve never worked so hard at anything. It was at once the most satisfying, and most excruciating experience I’ve ever had. And I learned a lot of stuff, about how to carry out the duties of a nurse – things like giving injections, and calculating medication dosages, and charting, and changing dressings, and starting IV’s (I LOVE starting IV’s).
But nursing school didn’t teach me how to be a nurse.You know who did?
My patients: They taught me how to ask questions – even the embarrassing ones I didn’t want to ask (For example: Mr. Watson, can you describe the consistency of the bowel movement for me?). They taught me that they are just people. People with a disease, people with an injury, and that in order to truly be a nurse, I must look beyond the disease and the injury to see the whole person. They taught me that they are the experts on themselves, that to be a good nurse, I must always be willing to listen to their stories, to hear them. They taught me that more often than not, what really makes a difference in their lives is not the skill I offer them (though skills are important – no one wants to be jabbed 15 times getting an IV), but the way in which I offer those skills- with gentleness and caring, with empathy and grace. And they taught me that sometimes, to be a really truly good nurse, you have to lie. (Some of my frequent lies include: That was a really good push! No, you are not pooping, I’m just changing these pads to freshen up. Keep pushing! Yes, the anesthesiologist will be right here. I just saw him walking down the hall.)
My classmates: They taught me to be driven. To work hard, to do well, not because of the grade that was coming, but because it would make me a more knowledgeable nurse. They taught me to value teamwork – because though nursing school is often a place where the competition can cause people to turn on each other, we had a cohort that wanted to push each other ahead. And this is one of the most critical skills a nurse can have – to work on a team, as part of a team – to be supportive as well as know when to be supported.
My coworkers: These women have taught me most of all. They have taught me how to blend the skills of a nurse, with the being of a nurse.They have taught me to be truly caring. How to feel the joy and pain of each patient. How to come along side them and offer comfort and encouragement – when to do it with a soft word, and when to be more direct.They have taught me that you are never done learning, that no matter how experienced you are, or aren’t, it is always ok to ask questions. They have taught me to think critically – to watch for what is unseen, to anticipate what may come. I have watched in awe as they respond to emergencies with speed and precision, I have listened with respect as they speak just the right word at just the right time. I have watched them fight and advocate for their patients with ferocity. I have seen them break and cry under the weight of a stressful shift, a difficult patient load, or a heartbreaking outcome. And I have seen them come back, to do it again, to offer more of themselves than they feel they have to give. Because that’s what nurses do.
So to all the wonderful nurses in my life, in all different practices, thank you for all you have taught me, for all you have inspired in me.
And Happy Nurse’s Week.