It is a rainy Monday in early April 2010. I am beyond anxious. Tonight is my first class in the nurse refresher program.
I worry that my 10-month-old grandson, for whom I provide full-time daycare, will not nap, meaning Grammy doesn’t nap either, meaning I’ll be exhausted. I watch “Nurse Jackie” on television and try to imagine myself in scrubs, a stethoscope draped around my neck.
It has been almost 30 years since I walked across the stage at Rhode Island College and received my oval pin with the gold flame. I wore my white uniform and white shoes, my long hair tucked into a neat bun under my starched cap. I gave birth during the last semester of my senior year, and had gone back to school when my daughter was just 3 weeks old, determined to complete my bachelor’s degree and make it to my pinning ceremony.
I chose my major based on what my best friend at the time was planning to do. I was the first child in our extended family to attend college and it was expected that I study something practical. Education was a means to an end, a way to better one’s position in the world.
It is 5 p.m. when I arrive at the hospital where my program is to be held, and, as in a bad dream, I can’t find the classroom. I can’t even find the correct building. I go to the main entrance and ask the receptionist for directions. She points to another woman sitting in the lobby and says, “She doesn’t know where she’s going, either.” I introduce myself and we walk together through the hospital to the school of nursing.
Like me, this nurse had been a psych nurse. We admitted to ignoring the advice of our professors to work in med-surg for a couple of years. I confide in her that I’ve never felt like a “real nurse.” She shares her experience of responding to a code. The physician ordered her to start an IV and she didn’t know how. His rebuke, “You’re a nurse and you can’t start an IV?” still haunts her.
The program coordinator does her best to ease our anxiety, saying, “When potential employers look at you, they are going to see mature decision makers. You’ll see, all the other stuff will come back.” I left nursing to raise my three children, and I listen as my classmates share their stories. They offer many reasons a nursing career can be interrupted: illness, death of a spouse, a sick child, a dying parent, or a more lucrative or less demanding career.
My eight-year nursing career was marked from the beginning by extreme ambivalence and fear – fear of hurting someone, fear of making a mistake, fear of physicians yelling at me, fear of my colleagues judging me, fear that someone will find out I don’t know everything.
There have been times when I thought I’d never work as a nurse again. However, my mother’s experience in hospice inspired me to return to the bedside as a hospice nurse after 18 years away, and now I search for my nursing pin. I find it in a box of spare buttons. Tarnished, I set it to soak in jewelry cleaner. I want to wear it when I begin clinical.
On Saturday, our neatly pressed scrubs and clean white shoes give away our student status, although the youngest among us is in her mid-40s. I have butterflies in my stomach. Our clinical instructor takes us to 4 North, the neuro-ortho unit, where we will spend the next 10 weeks getting back up to speed. Everything’s computerized, no more narrative notes. Patients must be scanned like cans of tomato sauce at the supermarket before getting their meds.
After 10 minutes of trying to scan a patient’s bar-coded wristband, I learn that I have to push the “scan” button first. My instructor supervises me as I check a patient’s blood glucose. I stick the poor woman four times before I get a large enough drop to cover the test strip. My instructor asks, “What did you learn? ” I look at her quizzically. She says, “You learned never to give up.”
I read the IV pump manual, learn which buttons to push, and observe a central-line dressing change. I learn how to look up my patients’ meds and labs online. We hear about evidence-based practice being applied to help prevent UTIs and decubitus ulcers. No more restraints: we use bed alarms to prevent falls. No more heparin flushes: we use saline now.
What hasn’t changed are the patients – they are still there as they always were: scared and in pain, overwhelmed, confused, disoriented, agitated, sweet and grateful; needing comfort, needing care, a kind word, a gentle touch. This I can give. This I’ve not forgotten.
Theresa Gleason RN, BSN, MA, is a hospice nurse and stress-reduction specialist based in Boonville, N.Y.