I am sure that most of you at one stage in your life would have met and dealt with nurses. Assisting you after an operation, giving you health advice, or caring for your loved ones; nurses are often present at pivotal moments in our lives, moments we will never forget. Being a nurse and accompanying someone throughout one of these journeys is not always easy.
I am a nurse myself and have worked in healthcare all my life. I have been part of nursing teams and led teams of nurses in hospitals. I now manage a retirement village. Care and compassion have always led my practice wherever I was. Caring is not something one can learn. We can learn how to physically care for clients, but really feeling for them, empathizing and really being there for them cannot be learnt. One has to find compassion within themselves in order to help others, but at the same time also care for oneself whilst doing it in order to avoid burnout. A very good nursing tutor once told me “When you stop caring leave”. To me that is how fundamental caring in practice is. However we cannot underestimate the emotional toll it can take on us as nurses. The general impression is that it “goes with the territory”, but really and truly it is not a given. In the eyes of people a good nurse is expected to be in full control of their emotions; not to cry, feel angry or upset when we see suffering or experience death. At times we are looked at as the only stable component in an episode in people’s lives. We are looked at for compassion, explanation, consideration and kindness because everyone and everything else seems lost and not making sense. But nurses are human too and encounter emotional stress every day, sometimes because a patient we have cared for has passed away, or a patient gets bad news, sometimes we even get shouted at and abused by patients or relatives who are angry and take it out on us. The balance between caring and not getting over involved is a balancing act every day.
Within care homes nurses have a pivotal role. Often working with the elderly is not seen as a great job or as something you need skills for. It is seen as mundane, repetitive, and boring. However, on the contrary taking care of the elderly requires a very particular skill set. Nurses often have to be very skilled in observation, in realizing that something is not quite right and acting on it immediately, like the initial signs of a stroke, a heart attack, where minutes can make a difference, or signs of depression where a diagnosis can help quality of life. As a nurse you need to think and put the puzzle together so the whole makes sense. Working day in, day out with the same residents aids in knowing the patient and reacting when something just is or does not feel right. However within long term care nurses need to also deal with loss all the time. They too bereave when residents pass away, or when they see chronic illnesses get worse and independence slowly fading. Long term care builds relationships between the professional and the end user, and the strength of this relationship cannot be underestimated. There is great satisfaction of adding quality to a person’s life by caring for them in their last years but there is also an element of grief that is present when these years end.
I would not change being a nurse for anything. I am often asked how as a nurse I cope with seeing so much pain and suffering. My answer is always that yes I have cried and felt pain at times for patients I lost. You never become immune to that. But the look of a patient when you have washed and dressed them, the face of a patient when you assist them out of bed the first time after something major, the peace of knowing you have given someone a dignified death, the relief on a patient’s face when you give them pain relief or solace. These are moments which I would not change for the world and make up for the pain and suffering.
No matter how far the nursing profession progresses we must never forget that we became nurses to care for patients and if we keep this at the center of all we do then we will never lack compassion and really do justice to the profession we represent.