I find myself pausing to ponder the right response whenever someone enquires about what my profession is. It is never enough to say “nurse” anymore and once I mention “oncology nurse”, I can anticipate a few responses: a) bemusement (what is oncology nursing?); b) sympathy (it must be so depressing); or c) awe (that is so noble). Response A usually develops into B or C after I elaborate further on what I do. Following this, it is usually 50-50 on whether or not the conversation dwindles.
Regardless of which discipline a nurse specialises in, the “bad reputation” of nursing is hard to dispel, despite efforts made in advocacy and generating awareness. It persists as an uphill battle, largely attributed to the myths and misperceptions that abound. Here are some of the more familiar ones:
Nursing is so much more than rushing around taking care of patients’ needs, changing diapers, and writing on charts. These are the type of tasks conjured up in the minds of many. It’s about skipping your meal break to hold the hand of a dying patient because her loved ones never bothered to pay a visit. It’s getting to know your patients’ families so well that they start sending you gifts. It’s laughing your way through while teaching first-time parents on how to nurse a new-born as they fumble to get it right. It’s knowing when to find humour amidst conversations and knowing when to be silent. It’s about striving for a balance between clinical practice and bedside professionalism. It’s advocating for your patients when they can no longer speak for themselves.
The textbook can only provide you with the basics, but it can never cover the complex dynamics of a patient whose vitals constantly fluctuate and whose family has a million questions while you’re trying to juggle their needs with all your other patients on the floor. Nursing has never been and never will be merely technical skills. Nothing we have learned in nursing school will ever prepare us for someone who has been given a deadline to leave.
People might tell us how intelligent we are, and insist we attend medical school to become doctors. As much as we respect doctors, most of us don't want to become them. The rapport we built with families and the difference we incite in our patient's lives are worth the countless pitfalls and sacrifices we face.
Only if you deem it to be boring. Nursing offers endless options of specialties (e.g. oncology, neurology, medical-surgical), types of work setting (e.g. hospitals, nursing homes, community care), schedules, etc. 4 years on, today I bring clinical care beyond healthcare institutions to patients’ homes. It encourages me to keep my skills sharp and think outside the box to handle the situation at hand. It is often just myself and the patient in the room, and there is no one there serving as a backup.
Yes, there comes a day when we acquire competency in terms of technical skills. Those may come easy eventually, but not for the reasons one might think. No two situations are alike, because everyone is different. It is not a “bread and butter” encounter every time we see the patient, we need to be fully present to them and their needs.
I know that because I chose to be a nurse there will be moments in my career that I will never be able to forget no matter how hard I tried. The painful wailing of a parent who lost their child, the defeat in the trauma team when we came so close to saving a life, the look of loss that surfaced when a family realised someone they love is gone, the shock and confusion when someone is handed a diagnosis that will forever change the person they were before walking into the hospital with a simple headache.
You become part of a person’s life during what is quite possibly the most difficult time they have ever experienced. It’s because of these moments that I have been able to hold someone’s hand while they let their loved ones pass into peace, cried with family members because in that moment, I wasn’t just a nurse. I was just another human being who felt and shared their pain, pulled up a chair to hear a story from an elderly person who yearned for a listening ear, stood with a wife trying to explain how we were doing every possible thing we could to resuscitate her husband.
So amidst the many myths, there is one truth - What does it really take to become a nurse? In a word, heart.