I Had the Time of My Life
Nursing school is grueling, and there is no way around it. The sheer number of hours per week students must dedicate to lecture, study, clinicals, and preparation for clinicals leaves little time for anything else. To complicate enduring all of this is the dawning realization that when one completes school, the exhaustion is probably not going to get much better. (It actually does; nurses are tired in different ways than nursing students.)
When I look back, though, in some important ways I realize I had the time of my life in nursing school.
Before I went to nursing school, I led a relatively clean and sheltered life. I don’t mean that I never worked a day in my life or had life handed to me on a plate—I didn’t. I worked hard at various things, and in my previous career I was self-employed, so if I didn’t work, the mortgage didn’t get paid. I just mean that nothing I did involved anything really, really real.
Nursing is real, though. In nursing school I saw people come into the world, and I saw them leave it. I fed those who could not do it themselves; I wiped backsides. I stood in mute horror watching the seeming callous brutality of the first code I’d ever seen, the first trauma, the first chest tube.
Those firsts are vivid to me, yet I have lost the wide-eyed wonder of most of what I do, and it makes me a little sad. My main emotion involving birth is I want to facilitate the rapid transport of the mother somewhere other than where I currently am. I’m much better with death; one of my skills is helping families and patients through it, when possible (another inescapable, real fact is that some people die horrible, unexpected, fast deaths from trauma or disease processes). But I do not have the feeling of being utterly floored by the enormousness of what is happening anymore. I will always remember the first person I saw die, and I cried for hours, not because I was sad about the death, but because it was the most profound thing I’d ever been a part of. The lady was there, and then she wasn’t, but it wasn’t a magic trick. It was real.
I noticed things that I no longer do unless I make myself see the situation through student eyes again, and that becomes more and more difficult. During codes I no longer see the pale cold flesh on the cart as a human being, nor do I notice the tornadic damage of a trauma room. My radar has changed. I think about things like vital sign trends, kidney function, how many fluid boluses the patient has had and through which line, heart rhythm, and core temperature. When I was a student, I stood in the corner and wondered if the patient had grandchildren, whether she was a schoolteacher or an astrophysicist, and whether she had any awareness that she was stretched naked and defenseless on a table while nurses and doctors put lines and tubes in every orifice to monitor all that stuff I just listed.
Retaining that student mentality would render me inefficient and depressed, so I don’t bemoan losing it. Changing our radar is part of our growth as nurses. However, it is good to look in the rearview mirror once in a while just to see where we’ve been.
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