half a nurse

half a nurse

A long time ago, I was 18 years old and a student in the Faculty of Nursing program at the University of Alberta.  My mom was a nurse, my aunt was a nurse, and I spent my teenage Sundays volunteering at the hospital, escorting patients to church services and singing hymns terribly off key.  I had the high school marks to get into U of A; I was the first person in my family to attend post-secondary.  My life was neatly planned and laid out before me.

Things were moving along nicely for the first year.  True, chemistry and biology had not been my favourite subjects in high school, and first year nursing had a focus on anatomy, physiology and pharmacology.  I bumped through a statistics course with barely a passing grade, but enjoyed the child development classes.  We had to take a mandatory English class, which I loved.  I bought my nursing uniforms and white stockings for my spring clinical rotation.  I had it made in the shade.

Then I showed up at the hospital for my practical training.  I first had a pediatric rotation.  This was the time where the parents weren’t allowed to stay in the hospital, and the sick, sad children were housed in cage-like cribs.  My maternity placement was in a dingy old hospital where babies were born under the stark lights of cold, impersonal room, and I spent my days actually shaving moms and giving them enemas to prepare them for delivery.  I was woozy as I observed cancer surgery, before the surgeon yelled, ‘get that student nurse out of here before she faints on my sterile field!’  I was skidding downhill, and fast.

I appeared not to have the stomach to be a nurse.  I felt everything, intensely, and it seemed like my skin was peeled off. Watching the dressing change on a man with a trach, I thought, ‘oh my, that must hurt’ and had to excuse myself to walk outside to catch some fresh air.  I couldn’t create that barrier I needed to be a professional, and I dove head-first into the pain.  At night I’d lay in bed, dreading my next day, and what suffering I’d have to inflict on some poor patient. There was no class to teach me how to not take on other people’s pain, how to be compassionate while still being able to sleep at night.  This was a skill I didn’t have – I felt raw and weak by the end of each day.

This floundering finally came to a halt one day during a rotation on an orthopedic ward in my second year.  I actually enjoyed orthopedics, because complex dressing changes meant I got to spend time with my assigned patient.  I spent an hour talking to a young man injured in a worksite accident while dressing his wound.  I got to talk to a grandpa after his hip replacement, and I chatted with a a woman with diabetes who had an amputation as I carefully wrapped her stumps.  The slower pace of this unit served me well.

Then one day, I walked into the staff room, and was accosted by an older nurse.  There was great animosity at that time between the diploma RNs and those who were were university-educated.  It had been mandated that the diploma RNs had to go back to school and get their degrees.  Many nurses were very angry, and this particular nurse channeled her anger towards unsuspecting wide-eyed, fragile me.

“You degree nurses don’t know even know how to make a bed properly,” she yelled.  Her ranting continued on, a blast of rage about the incompetence of degree nurses.

I fled the staff room, stunned, and tears stinging in my eyes.  I was a puddle on the bathroom floor. Nobody had ever yelled at me like that before.  Images of operating rooms, trachs, and babies in cages flooded my head.  She was wrong about not being able to make a bed properly – my mom, a product of a 1960’s nursing school, had taught me how to tuck bed sheet corners in tightly, turn down the blankets at the top, and arrange the extra blanket at the bottom, accordion style. One thing I did know was how to make a damn bed.

I couldn’t tolerate being randomly yelled at by a stranger. Coupled with my inability to inflict pain on people, or watch suffering in others, I quit nursing.

I spent the rest of my university days safely tucked in the humanities building, taking Shakespeare and Art History classes.   I got a degree, but it was the wrong one – a Bachelor of Arts.  I graduated as only half a nurse.

Today, I marvel at those who have chosen noble health care professions. Thick skin can serve clinicians well as they give injections and perform procedures.  But health care is not only a science – it is also an art.  And while soft-hearted me couldn’t master the balance of empathy and professionalism, I hope that the pendulum to does not swing too far the other way.  For caring is the most important work in health care.

We are all here on earth to help others; what on earth the others are here for I don’t know. -W. H. Auden


10 thoughts on “half a nurse

  1. Sue says:

    Hello Sue,

    I’m another Sue who happened onto your website by accident. I commenced my nurse training in Sydney, Australia in 1974 and I too couldn’t cope with the terribly painful things I had to do to patients. Along with this I was bullied so ferociously by one of the Sisters I left. I have regretted it all my life, and went back as a volunteer nurse in my 40’s to find I absolutely loved it. One Sister told me they often lost the best nurses through bullying, and that sensitive, empathic nurses like you were the very nurses most needed and the ones most likely to be bullied out.

    If you ever get a chance, read a book called “A Bride for St Thomas” by Cynthia Nolan, an Australian who trained as a nurse at St Thomas’ Hospital in London just before World War 11. She too complains that many other nurses did not have what she refers to as “my cursed empathy” which made nursing so difficult for her.

    You sound as if you would have been a wonderful nurse. And when I went back in my 40’s instead of being bullied I was told I was “a natural”. I think youth is part of the problem – when you become more mature you are better able to cope with the things you have to do.

    So you are definitely not alone, there are plenty of us out here who left nursing for similar reasons! I can most definitely sympathise.


  2. sue robins says:

    Thank you so much Sue for your comment, and for the book recommendation. I often interview nurses to prepare for presentations, and one question I always ask them is: how do you protect yourself while keeping your heart open? The more mature nurses are very specific about what they do (talk it out, reflect on work on the long commute home, work only part time) – perhaps this isn’t something that can be taught, but I wish nursing schools would talk about it! Thank you for your super comment, and best wishes to you so far away in beautiful Australia (we hope to visit there in 2015!).

  3. Sue says:

    Thanks Sue and how nice to communicate with someone in beautiful Canada, somewhere I have always wanted to visit! It seems from your website you have put your experiences both as a nursing student and mother to very good use.

    I meant to say I can also relate to the times when parents were constrained by strict visiting hours, and in my short rotation to the children’s ward I was mightily disturbed by the toddlers rocking themselves in their cots, or even banging their heads against the bars…

    I agree with your comment that as (very young!) student nurses we never had advice on ways to deal with the very sad or difficult situations we came across. We should
    have done. One scene I will always remember was on the Intensive Care Unit – a young patient had died and one of the nurses caring for him had broken down and was crying uncontrollably outside the ward, with another nurse telling her over & over “Nurse’s don’t cry”. I longed to tell that poor nurse that nurses should indeed have a cry when they need to and that her colleague should have been allowing her to give vent to her feelings, not bottle them up.

    Unfortunately in our current hospital system it appears nurses have even less time to give the care they should to their patients, and many lovely rituals that were performed in my time (such as placing a white flower in the hands of a deceased patient, and always offering each patient the option of a second bed bath after lunchtime on hot days in the summer, and giving them a back rub at night to help them relax and get to sleep) have gone.

    Nice to talk with you and I see you have already been to Melbourne? I am currently staying in a small town 4 hours’ drive west of Sydney called Orange, for a brief time, but Melbourne is where I was living before moving here (for what is a only a planned brief interlude) before going back to my favourite Australian city!

    Oh and I also went on to study Arts in Social Anthropology and Philosophy – and literature is my great love! Always nice to communicate with another humanities grad!

    Well that’s more than enough from me, and warmest wishes from Sue in Orange, Australia!

  4. sue robins says:

    I’m enjoying our conversation, Sue in Orange, Australia! I did have the great fortune to visit Melbourne (and Sydney, although the folks in Melbourne could not imagine why in the world I would want to go to Sydney 😉 almost three years ago. I spoke at a Consumer Engagement conference, and was lucky enough to stay with pediatrician Dr. Cath Crock and her family. Catherine is a true champion of patient and family centred care, and practices medicine with an open heart – she is a very special human being.

    Maybe I went through Orange when I took the train from Melbourne to Sydney! I love that the Internet makes our big world a smaller place, and we can make these special connections.

  5. Sue says:

    It is incredible how the www makes it possible for people all over the world to connect isn’t it Sue in Canada! – it always amazes me! Of course Melbourne is the better city & I’m sure the Melbournians told you that (yes Sydney has the harbour but Melbourne has the lifestyle!) If you go there again do try to get to Yarraville, my beloved stamping ground, it has such a great village feel – and enjoy coffee and a Portugese tart at the Sun Café in Ballarat Street! Gosh, I’m positively homesick!

    Alas you would have bypassed Orange on the XPT Sydney-Melb, We are about 3 hours west of the Blue Mountains so about 4 hours by car west of Sydney, high up in the alps so it actually snows here in the winter (but an amount of snow that Canadians would think pathetically sad). It does have beautiful autumns and springs but the population is only around 40,000 so it’s small… I am spending some time here writing (& walking with my little dog Sammy) and plan to get back to Melbourne a bit later this year… it is spectacularly beautiful here.

    I’ve wanted to go to Canada ever since I read Anne of Green Gables as a child – so by now getting there is on my bucket list!!! I’m still hoping…

    It sounds as if you have a fascinating job I must look harder at your website to see just how you got into this particular line of work… it sounds immensely satisfying.

    I worked with a wonderful team of doctors on a psych. ward in Sydney for several years, and I remember some of the male doctors actually in tears over some of their patients, and some incredibly caring male nurses who for some reason often seemed kinder to the mentally ill patients than many of the female nurses … I never worked out why this was. I remember an American nurse took over as Charge Nurse and she was terrific & a lot of fun. We also had a lot of Irish nurses and oh do they know how to party! Good times…

    Take care! from Sue in Oz

    Warmest wishes! from Sue in Oz!

  6. sue robins says:

    Keep us in mind if you ever find yourself in Western Canada. We are about 4 hours away from the Rocky Mountains – Jasper/Banff. I’ve never been to PEI, of Anne of Green Gables fame, but my parents are heading there in the fall – it has been on their bucket list and they are finally doing it – so happy for them!

  7. Sue says:

    Thank you kindly for that Sue I will certainly keep you in mind. Ditto if you are in Melbourne and I am back by then! I guess you are heading into the Spring/Summer weather which will be nice – we are finally starting to see the trees take on their Autumn colours in another couple of weeks it will be just beautiful. Lovely to chat with you!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s