In a previous article I mentioned that there were two professions I could not see myself being a part of, those being teaching and nursing.
And just like last week, let me hasten to add my disclaimer. It is not because as a doctor I have seated myself on a lofty platform daring to look down my nose at nurses or teachers. It truly is because I have the utmost respect for those who have chosen nursing and teaching as their vocation, and I know that I am incapable of doing what they do.
I recall my days as an intern being stretched to the wire as necessitated by that ‘rite of passage’. I was on the Obstetrics and Gynaecology rotation and I was not having a good day. Babies were exiting their mothers’ wombs at an alarming frequency and what could go wrong, went wrong. I remember clearly getting call number three to call the pre-natal ward after which I snapped. Storming from the Gynaecology ward I was propelled to my destination by the steam that was coming out of my ears and in a matter of minutes I was on the ward.
It is not in my nature to be rude or shout and ‘carry on’ but it was clear to all and sundry that I was angry. With a barely controlled tone, I informed the nurse that I was dealing with an emergency (I truly was) and I could not take her call, and I sent messages that I would come as soon as I could. She quietly looked at me and said, ‘You were supposed to take bloods from a patient an hour ago. I was calling to let you know that I did it for you.’
Whilst I am truly thankful that I did not lambaste the nurse and put her in her place as others might have, I learned a valuable lesson that day which has stuck with me. Nurses are a precious resource in the field of medicine. I have never doubted their value but her actions show us that the patients’ health and best interest are at the core of what they do on a daily basis.
If we think about the hospital setting, a patient will see a nurse more often than he or she sees a doctor. She or he can make or break an in-patient stay for anyone as the day-to-day management of a ward is under the remit of the nurses. Allow me to give you an insider’s view of some of the tasks a nurse has to undertake.
My sister always laughs at me because in her estimation I am one of the most scornful persons she has had the pleasure of knowing. Pus, vomit, watery stools and sputum are liquids I would prefer not to encounter. However, due to the nature of the job, I cannot escape them. Nurses deal with these fluids several times on any given day. I have watched nurses tenderly dress the most offensive looking wounds without making the patient feel self-conscious.
Nurses possess that uncanny ability to sniff patients out – whether it be someone trying to trick the system, someone who needs not only medical attention but social care as well and, as required by the profession, the ability to see those who need urgent care and facilitate such.
Nursing, like teaching, is a social profession and like those teachers who dip into their own resources I have watched nurses discretely (in their estimation) buy a meal for a patient, arrange transportation or refer individuals to more sustainable social services. I have also watched nurses chide patients who have been blatantly disregarding instructions given by other healthcare professionals. Thus, I must come to the conclusion that ‘nurse’ is just an overarching title for the numerous other jobs he or she must do.
My aunt was a Sister at a hospital in England back in the days when the white hat and stockinged feet were an institution. It was impossible to not know that a particular individual was a nurse. We have witnessed a relaxation in the uniform worn by nurses and perhaps some may say a lapse in the professional attitude of nurses. As with every profession, there are excellent nurses and average nurses, and there are nurses who should not be nurses.
I have witnessed nurses speak to patients so roughly that I myself was rendered speechless. And there have been many reports in the media about ill treatment of all sorts meted out by nurses. Although these behaviours do not represent the norm for the way nurses act, there is still that sect of ‘unprofessionals’ that could give the whole profession a bad name.
What are the images I carry in my head of a true nurse? A nurse comforting an old lady in Accident and Emergency after her husband of several decades died; a nurse quietly explaining to a teenaged female that she should treat her body with respect; a nurse being demoralized by the words of an angry relative (who was unaware that minutes before she arrived, her now-soiled relative was fresh and awaiting her arrival) refusing to retaliate; a nurse showing a new mother how to breastfeed; a nurse giving a sticker to a howling child who just received a vaccine; an obviously tired nurse who willingly works another shift because another was unable to make it to work; an efficient professional who is an expert in his or her own area of specialty.
I end with what I believe is my favourite image of a nurse. I remember distinctly that on the day our daughter was born, the morning nurses stayed on to meet the little one who had made me a semi-permanent resident at our local hospital. The looks of love etched on their faces will never be forgotten. I am forever grateful for having personal and professional experiences with a true nurse.
(Rénee Boyce is a medical doctor, a wife, a mother and a Christian, who is committed to Barbados’ development. Email:firstname.lastname@example.org)