By Meredith Willis, RN
Nursing school was tough. Although I had always been a straight A student, the rote memorization which served me well in the skills lab was my downfall in theory. Somehow I managed to keep my grades up and pass the NCLEX. Even 17 years later I still can’t believe I did it.
My instructors were amazing, but I learned so much more on the job. I remember looking up to my mentors and thinking I would be so confident and have all the answers within five years. Five years later, I laughed at the memory of my naiveté. Over time, I have learned so much and I’d like to share a few things new nurses should know.
First, know your limits. It’s only natural for your orienting nurse to try to encourage you out of your comfort zone. There will be many tasks you may be doing for the first time. For instance, we were not allowed to hang blood as students. If a skill is new to you, speak up. Do not pretend to have the answers.
Ask for a demonstration. I always thought I should know the answer and that kept me from asking certain questions. Even when I did ask, I sometimes met with resistance. I’ll never forget being told to draw blood at a client’s home the first week of being a home health nurse. When I said I hadn’t done it before I was assured that it was just like starting an IV, but in reverse. I did it, but as a seasoned nurse I would now say, “Show me.” There is no shame in not knowing, and there can be grave danger in not asking.
Also, know your role. Television nurses always seem to have it all figured out. They bark orders and constantly defy the rules. Familiarize yourself with your state’s Nurse Practice Act. Follow your chain of command. Advocate for your patients in a professional manner. This is real life, not a set. Be careful when you are advising patients on what they should do. I once told a patient to eat one more bite in the nicest way I could muster and ended up covered head to toe with tomato soup. Did I mention I was wearing white scrubs at the time?
Know you will find your way. My goal in becoming a nurse was simple — I wanted to help people. I imagined myself swooping in to save the day, but it turned out that was not the brand of nursing for me. The ED kept me on edge and not in a good way. Labor and delivery was not my thing either, although some of my best friends work in the maternal child area.
After two years of hospital nursing I finally stumbled into home health, hospice and eventually public health/community nursing. It turns out I have a knack for teaching and, more importantly, listening. I am organized and independent. I enjoy building a trusting relationship while maintaining professional boundaries.
Finally, know your impact. A smile, a kind word or the right medicine in the right amount at the right time, can make all the difference. You will be tired. You will have bad days. You will cry, you will rant, you will laugh and through it all you will care. Caring counts. That’s all you really need to know.
Meredith Willis, RN, is a former Children First public health nurse for the Kay County Health Department, Ponca City, Okla.
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