Saturday, September 25, 2010

being a nurse

I thought about this post for a while now.  And not sure I will post it after I write it, but it is something I feel strongly about and I find I have a need to see the words in front of me.

I have been a nurse for about 16 years now.  It wasn't something I set out to be "when I grow up", but a conscious change of career in midlife.  I sort of stumbled into nursing at a time that I was feeling restless and a need to change, to do something more productive with my life. 

Starting nursing school at 40 was odd you may be thinking, but there were many people in my class who were older than I was.  Seems I wasn't the only one looking for a change.  I met my best friend Barb the first day of nursing school, and we have been steadfast friends since that day.

To say it was the hardest thing I ever did is an understatement.  I had to learn a whole new language, take Algebra all over again (I hate math!) and spend most of my time studying all things medical and nursing, something I never liked to do.  I have always enjoyed learning things on my own (I get that from dad) and to be forced to learn at a set pace was hard for me. 

I graduated in 1995 with my ADN.  Barb and I registered to take our state boards together, studied hard for a week and made sure we ate breakfast on the day of the test, which was on a computer.  (Our class was the first one at our college to take nursing boards on computers.)  We were driving home after the test, and I was brain bombed and stressed, thinking I had failed miserably.  I was in the left lane on the freeway, and suddenly Barb said "aren't you supposed to get off at this exit to take me home?" and I said "oh yes!" and drove sideways to the right across 4 lanes of traffic and hit the exit lane like an arrow hitting a bullseye.  Barb was trapped and all she could do was grab the dashboard and say "wheeeeeeeeee" as I careened across.

Barb and I both passed boards, and went in different directions with our careers.  I ended up on medical surgical taking care of pediatric to geriatric aged patients. (It was a small hospital with a combined unit.)  Barb ended up after a short stint on neurology at another hospital, to psychiatric nursing at yet another hospital.  Barb, like many nurses, found her specialty and stuck with it.  I found that I liked to move on after I had become comfortable with what I had learned in a particular area.  That means specifically that over the past years I have worked in med-surg, orthopedics, neurology, cardiac, general surgery, pediatrics, and psychiatric nursing.  And traveled to other places to work at times.  (The wanderlust was a surprise to me!)

I quickly had my "I am going to cure the world" bubble burst.  I spent 4 1/2 years on that unit, and it changed my way of thinking.  About life.  About death.  I quickly realized that the most we can usually do is stabilize a person's health so they can go home until they get sick again (med-surg is like that, mostly chronically ill people).  Pediatrics were more upbeat, but you not only had to take care of the baby or toddler, but the parents as well who were usually frightened and exhausted.

I also realized that the care I gave at death was as important as the care I gave for those who lived.  Sometimes I had little time to prepare a family, or provide support.  There was the time that I had just admitted a patient, and was telling his wife she needed to get some rest, spending some time with her, when I noticed that the gentleman I was caring for was dying.  Fast.  I had to explain to her what was going on, and give her time alone with him.  He died less than two hours after I admitted him, and when I left work that morning, the wife grabbed me and hugged me while I was talking to her, thanking me for everything.  What did I do, I wondered to myself?  I really didn't do much.  Then it hit me like a ton of bricks.  I wasn't able to care for him until he was well enough to go home, but I was able to provide a good death experience.  That sounds weird, but I know now that sometimes as a nurse that was the best I could do, that how we die is as important as how we live, and those last memories are often the strongest ones for  the family.

And I find I have grown as a person.  It wasn't the things I learned in college (many people would think after spending almost ten years in college before I got my graduate degree that I would count that as life changing).  The things I learned as a nurse at the bedside have changed me as a person.  I didn't realize how much I had changed until my oldest daughter said she could see the change in me, after becoming a nurse.  That shocked me, I knew inside I was different, but when Jen made that remark I realized that it was also an outward change.  Strange to realize really. 

The things I have learned since I became a nurse:
1. I am a strong person.
2. I thought I would be touching people's lives and making a difference, but I am the one who has been touched, and those I have cared for have made a difference in my life.
3. You can never undo being a nurse.  Once you have the knowledge and experience, it changes how you think.  Forever.
4. People are whole beings.  I care not only for their bodies, but their minds and spirits as well.
5. We all live in a small world, and the one thing that levels all playing fields (cultural, racial, etc) is illness.  It speaks it own universal language.
6.  Sick people feel powerless, and I must remember that the person in that bed could be me one day.
7.  Touch is the most powerful thing I can do as a nurse.  Laying a caring hand on a sick body speaks all the way to that person's soul.

I wonder sometimes why my life went in this direction.  I am glad it did, but I could just as easily have done something else.  We all make choices.  But I believe strongly that the day I went to take that first test with my friend, I had someone behind me with a finger in my back, poking me in that direction.

I am glad I was poked. 

And thanks.  I don't have to say to who.  They know.
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