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