How I Became a Nurse Part III: It’s An Ongoing Process

The Christening Gown (From Cradle to Grave: The Color White) by jparadisi

One shift, Roz and I worked alone. That night, there were only two patients in the pediatric intensive care unit. Roz was charge nurse. I sat at the console charting, with the hypnotic QRS tracings of sinus rhythm in the background. Roz charted at another desk by the door. The door opened and a man I’d never seen before entered. He walked past Roz, to me. He identified himself as the pediatrician for Roz’s patient, and asked who was the charge nurse.

“Roz is in charge. She’s taking care of your patient.”

He continued addressing his questions to me. “How’s my patient? What’s his blood pressure?” “I don’t know,” I reinforced, “Roz is your patient’s nurse, and she has his chart. She can answer your questions.” I looked quizzically to Roz, who briefly looked up, then put her head down, intent on charting. The doctor continued. “I want to know the I and O. Is the patient getting enough pain medication? Are his parents around?” I didn’t get it. I remained confused until Roz walked over and handed me the chart. Suddenly, I understood. My anger flared then turned into a cold lump in my stomach. I had to control my voice as I answered his questions from the chart.

Roz nursed circles around me. I owed it to her that I was in the PICU and this physician wouldn’t talk to her because of the color of her skin. I only spoke to him because of his patient, a child. He scribbled some orders, gave me the chart, and left. I felt traumatized by his overt racism, and because he directed it towards Roz, my friend. The cold lump in my belly morphed into nausea.

“Roz, I’m so sorry. He’s an ass.” Her eyes betrayed her feelings, but her words were calm.  “Jules, I don’t blame white people for this. That fool is an ornery, nasty soul no matter what color his skin is.”

Decades later, Dr. Racist remains a painful memory. Dr. Racist was never seen again in the PICU. He was a blip on our screen, nothing more. His disappearance prevented Roz and I from doing more than complain to management.

Becoming a nurse is an ongoing process. Certainly, a nurse’s expertise grows through attainment of knowledge and skills, but it is more than that. Becoming a nurse also includes learning when to speak up and when to let something roll off your shoulders. Like everything else she taught me, Roz was better skilled at this than I. I am not a qualified authority on racism in nursing, but the National Black Nurses Association, and minoritynurse.com are two educational resources by people who are.

My treatment by Sister Sebastian was workplace bullying. What happened to Roz is workplace bullying taken to its sinister extreme. It is so universal that the successful TV comedy series The Office uses it for its premise. However, when nurses experience workplace bullying, we are usually in the midst of work requiring responsibility for the safety of others. It’s hard to stand up to rude or disruptive comments when your patient’s condition is rapidly deteriorating or you are in a patient care area. Bullies know this, and use it to their advantage. I think this is what makes workplace bullying particularly demoralizing for nurses:  often, we must choose between defending ourselves and protecting our patients.

I have one strategy, developed over the years, which I find effective. When I overhear a coworker berated by another in either language or tone of voice, I go stand next to that person. Usually my quiet presence is enough to cause the offending person to stop. Occasionally it is not, and the offender asks, “What do you want? Why are you here?” I reply, “I’m just wondering if everything is okay over here. Do you realize everyone can hear you?” So far, this has always stopped the abuse. It’s particularly effective if more than one nurse stands by.

Becoming a nurse is an ongoing process. I am still learning.

How I Became a Nurse Part II: Gatekeepers

Gate Keepers by jparadisi 2011

“Jules, you need to quit wasting your talents working with Sister Sebastian up there on the Pediatric unit. I want you transfer to Pediatric Intensive Care so I can train you. You’re a natural,” said Roz, when we finished our shift.

Roz found a way for me to float to PICU at least once a week. Soon, I was caring for stable patients with her backup. It was complex work, and I had a lot to learn. I loved it. I wondered what it would take to become staff. Roz encouraged me to ask Barbara, who managed both pediatrics and the PICU.

Barbara worked her way into nursing administration first as a pediatric RN and then in PICU. She and Roz had worked side by side in both units before Barbara became manager. They were friends. Roz and I sat in her office, discussing my transfer.

“Roz can’t say enough good things about your nursing, Juli. I’m happy to hear you’re doing well and I’m grateful for your help in the PICU. I think you will make an excellent PICU nurse, however, I’m reluctant to transfer you there so soon after graduation. You’ve been a nurse for less than six months, and I’m afraid that getting in over your head is a real possibility. I will feel more comfortable with the idea after you gain more experience. I don’t mean to discourage you, but for now the answer is no. Let‘s talk about it again after you‘ve been here a year.”

I was already in over my head on the pediatric unit, but I understood Barbara’s concerns. Since I floated so often, I knew it wouldn’t be long before she changed her mind. I decided not to push for the transfer at present.

What I didn’t count on was interference from Sister Sebastian. One evening I checked in on Peds before floating to PICU when once again she stopped me at the nurse’s desk.  “I see they scheduled you in the PICU tonight, however, it is not fair for them to have favorites. You cannot always be the nurse who goes down there. I am keeping you here tonight and I have sent Leah down to them instead. I have told Roz no.” Her wimpled face radiated with satisfaction as she spoke. She found pleasure in the self-assigned role of gate keeper. Her personal disappointments compelled her to block the way of others pursuing happiness. Now I know life is full of such people.

I wanted to argue with her that the other Peds nurses hated floating to PICU, but I knew it wouldn’t help. I took report on my assignment, realizing I was going to stay a Peds nurse for a very long time. During my break in the staff lounge, Roz called from PICU. “This isn’t the end of it,” she said.

Three days later, Barbara called me back to her office. Roz was already there, seated. Barbara started the conversation.

“Juli, Roz requests I transfer you to PICU. I have already explained my concerns. I still feel the same, but Roz has agreed that if I transfer you, she will take responsibility for your training in the PICU. She has committed to working the same schedule as you every shift for a year, to make sure that both you and your patients are safe. Do you still want to transfer?

I couldn’t believe Roz would commit herself like that for me. I agreed to the transfer, resolute that she would not regret her choice. Years later, after mentoring many new nurses myself, I fully understand Roz’s gift.  Her generosity is more overwhelming than the nursing unit she rescued me from. Life should be full of such people.

I thrived as a nurse in the PICU. I learned rapidly in the fast paced environment. Roz gave me a Pediatric Intensive Care Nursing textbook. I studied it at home and on breaks.

Roz was well respected by the PICU intensivist. Eventually, he trusted my nursing judgment nearly as much as hers. I was proud when he nicknamed us “The A Team.” I was going to stay in nursing after all.

Next week: How I Became a Nurse Part III

How I Became a Nurse Part I-It Could Not Have Begun Worse

The White That Binds (Pinning Ceremony) by jparadisi 2010

It could not have begun worse. I was not prepared for the difficult transition from student nurse to a full-time professional. My first job was working 12-hour night shifts in a high acuity pediatric unit. No one explained that during my two-week orientation I would work days, 7:00 am to 7:30 pm, not nights. The head nurse, Sister Sebastian, failed to see the humor in this misunderstanding, and sent me home when I showed up twelve hours late on my first day. She never liked me, and I was afraid of her.

The unit used a team-leading model, which meant two Registered Nurses managed 30+ sick children with two Licensed Vocational Nurses, if available, and a few Certified Nurses’ Aides. The LVNs could not start IVs or give IV medications. The CNAs took vital signs, and bathed and weighed the patients. The RN’s assessed each patient and new admission, started IVs, drew labs, hung IV medications, and resolved problems. Significant changes in a patient’s condition were phoned to their pediatrician ASAP, unless it could wait until morning. It was expected the RN knew the difference. If she was wrong there was a morning confrontation with Sister Sebastian.

After two weeks of orientation, I had patients, LVNs, and CNAs to manage. Six weeks later, I was occasionally charge nurse. The charge nurse took a full assignment. Ignorantly, I assumed these were realistic expectations for an inexperienced nurse. I worked hard to succeed, but failed miserably. When I made mistakes, Sister Sebastian glared at me during change of shift report. It was overwhelming. Often I would cry at home after shifts. Four months into it, I considered quitting nursing. Then I met Roz from the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit.

The PICU was experiencing a long period of low census. So Roz floated to Pediatrics and helped our chronically understaffed night shift. That first night, we teamed together to do patient care.  Roz was compassionate with patients, and highly skilled. She put them and their parents at ease with humor and a calm demeanor. She carried out several nursing tasks while thoroughly assessing a patient at the same time. I felt the rhythm. We worked together many shifts.

Roz changed my perception of nursing. She did everything my nursing instructors called unprofessional: she laughed a lot and loudly. She made irreverent jokes. She told stories on doctors and other nurses. She talked back to Sister Sebastian and advised me to do the same. We became friends.

Time passed. I arrived for work one night and as I approached the nurse’s desk, Sister Sebastian blocked my way, arms crossed in front of her chest. She said, “We don’t have enough patients tonight for you to work here. I was going to call you to stay home. However, the PICU is busy and they need a nurse to float. Roz asked for you. Try not to kill anyone there,” or something to that effect.

This surprised me. I appreciated Roz’s confidence, but I wasn’t sure I wouldn’t accidently kill somebody down there either. Most of the children were on ventilators, which I had only limited experience of in school. The PICU nurses managed complex IV drips. I was nervous, but believed Roz wouldn’t let me get into trouble. So I reported to the PICU.

The hospital housed a small, but high-powered PICU. As part of a Level Three Trauma Center, they treated every kind of pediatric emergency. All their beds were full this shift and most of the patients were unstable. Rather than giving me a patient to struggle with on my own, Roz assigned us together managing two unstable patients. Her strategy had me helping her with assessments, taking vitals signs, and giving the medications I was familiar with, while teaching me how to draw blood from the central and arterial lines for lab tests. She reinforced my suctioning skills with the ventilated patients. We shared charting in the nurse’s notes.

I loved intensive care nursing! Rather than scattering my attention on a floor full of patients, I found my strength was focusing on the intricate details of one or two critically ill patients. Following nursing tasks through to create a care plan I could assess and adjust rapidly suited me.  This kind of nursing made sense. Of course, I relied heavily on Roz, but by the end of the shift, I knew that PICU nursing was for me.

But how would I get to stay there?

How to be Scary with Your Body, Win Games, and Lose Coworkers

     Last Saturday, I sat on a bleacher, watching my favorite 10 year-old play baseball. He is the catcher for his team. He has the proportions and beauty worthy of a Renaissance sculpture, but he is compact and a little small for his age. Looking at him, I guess he weighs in around 60 pounds.

     I was startled watching him play.  He wore bulky black body padding from ankle to neck, and a red metal, helmet-like mask covered his face. In his catcher’s gear, he looks like Iron Man. He chased the players trying to run home back to third base by holding the baseball in his right hand as if it were a weapon, shaking his shoulders back and forth with the ferocity of a miniature Robert Downey Jr.

     After the game, I asked him about his aggressive style. He told me that wearing a mask makes it impossible to use his facial expressions to intimidate his opponents, so he learned how to be scary with his body. 

     It reminded me of a story told by a friend about a performance between two nurses discussing a clinical matter. One nurse pointed her finger like a gun at her coworker. She did not let the other nurse get in a sentence, blocking her attempts to speak without listening.  All hope of productive communication was lost, and the other nurse sulked back to third base. My friend said that watching the bullying nurse use her body to be scary reminded her of this Pink Floyd lyric:

And it’s too late to lose the weight you used to need to throw around.

     Little Leaguers and nurses are not the only people who use their bodies to be scary. I’ve had fingers shaken at me by doctors too. I’ve been threatened with rolling eyes, words launched in tones of sarcasm, even yelling, at work. While it’s unpleasant, these behaviors send up a red flag signaling to me this person is probably telling me to do something that is against policy or unsafe. Or, they might be covering up a mistake they made. They may be afraid of revealing something they don’t know. Whatever, I stay focused on the issue, while directing the conversation towards policy and scope of practice. Sometimes it works. 

     The thing is no one wins when communication at work breaks down to this level. At its worst, patient care suffers. Who hasn’t seen the code from hell when a team leader lost control of the situation by intimidating the rest of the code team? How many errors occur because someone says, “just do it”, when you know the “it” is against policy or safe practice, and no one effectively stands up to him or her?  

     Aggressive body language is a strength on a sports field, where it assists in winning games. In the workplace, there is not an opposing team. We are all there to take care of patients. Chasing coworkers away by intimidation might make you feel good in the moment, but you won’t have a team covering the other bases when you need them.

If They Could See What Nurses See: Health Care Reform Passes

Opening Skies photo: JParadisi

     I wish declaring war on Iraq had stirred the same amount of energy which Health Care Reform has. Each endeavor involves spending huge sums of money and pivots on lives in the balance.

     The anger of those opposing Health Care Reform is vehement. Crowds shouting slurs at senators, threatening them with violence in voice messages for voting in favor of the bill, while prominent citizen and member of the opposition Sarah Palin tweets Don’t Retreat, instead RELOAD! to her followers demonstrates that no one is safe from bullying and workplace violence

     I would like Health Care Reform to go further, still, it’s a big step towards the betterment of the lives of our citizens. Its importance became real to me last week, just days after the bill’s passage, as I listened to young patients living with treatable, chronic illnesses tell me that they are enrolling in college, or taking the job offered to them, because they no longer have to plan their lives around qualifying for disability payments for their pre-existing conditions. Hearing young adult patients express how a future of independence has suddenly opened up for them, because Health Care Reform passed brought tears to my eyes. I wonder if those who oppose Health Care Reform are so blind that a tear could not escape from their eyes too, if they could see what nurses see.