|The author, circa 1980|
About a year and a half into my job, the hospital hired a new director of nursing. I have to believe that her heart was in the right place and that she was doing what she thought best for the hospital and patients, but for me, her decisions would be life changing. She decided, for reasons that still perplex me, to reassign many of the nurses to various units, according to seniority and date of hire. Though I was thoroughly enjoying my role on the surgical unit and thriving, I was one of the nurses reassigned. I was moved to the evening shift on what was then known as the “terminal unit.” It was a dismal setting compared to where I had been working , because I am a “morning person,” it was a like a death sentence. But very quickly, I grew to love my teammates and our patients, and I was surprised to discover that I had a knack for being present and listening to patients’ stories.
Many patients were in the end stages of their illnesses and in various phases of the dying process. Although a highly competent nurse, I clearly needed improvement in my timeliness and efficiency. I discovered—and, of course, so did my charge nurse—that because I enjoyed engaging in prolonged conversations with patients, my task completion often fell short. My charge nurse genuinely liked me and believed I was a skilled nurse but, on many occasions, she was compelled to admonish me on my inability to complete my work on time. I realized that I needed to improve my timeliness, and I was working on it, but there were times when I still fell short of my goals. And then one night, I experienced a defining moment in my young career.
It was a busy night, late in the shift. One of my tasks was to remove the irrigation apparatus from an elderly male patient who had recently undergone surgery for a transurethral resection. This surgery required an elaborate series of bottles and tubing, including a urinary catheter inserted through the male genitalia and progressing into the bladder where fluids could be used for irrigation. The charge nurse asked me to remove the apparatus and to do it with expediency, because there was much more work to be done. I was determined to show how well I could perform the task, and to do it in a swift and efficient manner.
I walked into the patient’s room, greeted him and began to explain the procedure. He gazed at me with tired eyes and asked, “Will it hurt?” I paused, and then said gently, “Of course, I’m not a man, but when I have done this procedure for other gentlemen, they have told me it is pretty uncomfortable.” He responded, “I’m not ready yet. Can we talk for awhile?” So, I sat beside him, and we talked. He had recently lost his wife of many decades. He spoke of her that night—about their life together, their children and how aggrieved he was when his beloved wife took her final breath. We talked for about 10 minutes, and then he said he was ready. I briefly explained the procedure and went about removing the tubing and disengaging the apparatus.
I started to say good night when I noticed tiny, unshed tears in the corners of his eyes. I couldn’t just leave, so I sat with him for a few more minutes. Then, I gathered the equipment and, as I was rolling it down the hall, bolstered myself for a “talking to” by my charge nurse. Clearly, I had not performed my responsibilities in the desired time frame. Sure enough, as I walked down the hallway, she met me, politely asked me to dispose of the equipment, finish my assigned responsibilities and meet her in the conference room after completing my shift.
Believe me, I was pretty worried. I prepared myself for the possibility of that night being my last on the job. After our shift, we entered the conference room and the charge nurse gently closed the door, folded her hands, and said, “Cindy, you have missed your calling. I want you to think seriously about going back to school to become a psychiatric nurse. You have a genuine gift for being present with people and listening with real compassion and interest.” And then she sat back quietly in her chair.
Imagine my surprise. I looked at her, acknowledged her suggestion and promised her I would give it serious thought. Later, I reflected on our conversation, realized she was right and began making plans to return to school to become a psychiatric nurse. She was right—I loved my clinical career as a psychiatric nurse. I am forever grateful, and will never forget the care shown me by my charge nurse who saw something in me I did not. Rather than reprimand, discourage or suggest I find another position, she shined a light on a pathway of new discovery that launched a fabulous career in psychiatric nursing.
I learned many lessons from that experience. I learned that when we look for what’s right and good, and when we genuinely care about people, we can change their lives. In the course of my own career, I have tried to model for others the guidance my charge nurse bestowed on me more than 30 years ago. As a clinical nurse, I looked for and celebrated the strengths of my patients, and now, as a nursing professor, I try to do the same for my students. These valuable lessons have made and continue to make an impression on how I view and navigate the world.