Advice to a student nurse

My response to  a student nurse who was haunted by questions about becoming a nurse. Published in Kai Tiaki: Nursing New Zealand 13.1 (Feb 2007): p4(1).

I was pleased to see [x} letter, Questions haunt nursing student, in the December/ January 2006/2007 issue of Kai Tiaki Nursing New Zealand (p4). The questions she has reflected on indicate she is going to be an amazing nurse.

I believe nursing is both an art and a science, and our biggest tools are our heart and who we are as human beings. I was moved by her letter and thought I’d share my thoughts. The questions she posed were important because the minute we stop asking them, we risk losing what makes us compassionate and caring human beings.

Let me try to give my responses to some of the questions Lisa raised–I’ve been reflecting on them my whole career and continue to do so.

1) Can a nurse “care” too much?

Yes, when we use caring for others as a way of ignoring our own “issues”. No, when we are fully present in the moment when we are with a client.

2) Don’t patients deserve everything I can give them?

They deserve the best of your skills, compassion and knowledge. Sometimes we can’t give everything because of what is happening in our own lives, but we can do our best and remember we are part of a team, and collaborate and develop synergy with others, so we are resourced and can give our best.

3) How do I protect myself and still engage on a deeper level with the patient?

I think we have to look after our energy and maintain a balance in our personal lives, so we can do our work weft. We also need healthy boundaries so we can have therapeutic communication.

4) How do I avoid burnout?

Pace yourself, get your needs met outside work, have good colleagues and friends, find mentors who have walked the same road to support you. I’ve had breaks from nursing so I could replenish myself.

5) Why can’t I push practice boundaries, when I see there could be room for adjustment or improvement?

I think you can and should, but always find allies and justification for doing something. Sometimes you have to be a squeaky wheel

6) Isn’t it okay to feet emotionally connected to the patient?

Yes, it is okay to feel emotionally connected to the patient, but we also have to remember that this is a job and our feelings need transmutation into the ones we live with daily.

7) Don’t I need to continually ask questions, if nursing is to change, or will that just get me fired?

Yes, you do have to ask questions but it is a risky business. Things don’t change if we don’t have pioneers and change makers.

8) Finally, am I just being a laughable year-one student with hopes and dreams, and in need of a reality check?

No, your wisdom and promise are shining through already and we want more people like you. Kia Kaha!

The ‘small’ things count in caring

Editorial published in Kai Tiaki: Nursing New Zealand 8.10 (Nov 2002): p28(1).

KAI TIAKI Nursing New Zealand has recently carried narratives written by nurses discussing their experiences as recipients of health care, eg “My Journey of Pain” by Glenis McCallum (July 2002, p16). These experiences gave the nurses the opportunity to re-examine their practice and to reclaim their empathy.

Similarly, a personal experience provided the impetus to write this brief piece. I recently had the opportunity to re-evaluate my own beliefs about nursing and the importance of communication and caring when I witnessed my sister receiving care in a hospital maternity setting. What came across was the importance of the “small” things–the caring and the communication, and the importance of compassion and empathy. The sweetness of the person who opened the door to the unit and said “welcome to our world”. The rudeness, almost surliness, of the nurses who forgot to introduce themselves or tell us what was happening.

Rightly, there is much focus on nursing as a profession, yet is it possible that in this debate we have forgotten the small things that really matter to our clients -the things that make people feel safe and cared for?

This personal and professional interest was further piqued by two workshops held in Auckland recently that focused on maternal mental health issues. Both highlighted the important role nurses have to play when caring for women experiencing childbirth.

In the first workshop, organised by the education and support group, Trauma and Birth Stress (TABS), 170 consumers and health professionals gathered to explore post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after childbirth. The group TABS was formed by women who had all experienced stressful and traumatic pregnancies or births that had negatively affected their lives for months or even years after the experience. One of TABS’s aims is to educate health professionals on the distinctions between PTSD and post-natal depression so the chance of misdiagnosis is lessened and correct treatment is started quickly.

Speakers at the workshop included an international nursing researcher from the United States, Cheryl Beck. A number of New Zealand women have shared their stories of PTSD with Beck and have found telling their stories and having someone understand and believe them has been very therapeutic. Other speakers included TABS member Phillida Bunkle and Auckland University of Technolgy midwifery lecturer Nimisha Waller who spoke on how mid wives can assist mothers with PTSD.

In my role at UNITEC Institute of Technology, I organised the second workshop, which also featured Beck. Entitled “Teetering on the edge: Postpartum depression–assessment and best practice”, the workshop attracted around 100 nurses, midwives, GPs and consumers. A professor in the School of Nursing at the University of Connecticut, Beck has for many years focused her efforts on developing a research programme on postpartum depression. Using both qualitative and quantitative research methods, she has extensively researched this devastating mood disorder that affects many new mothers. Based on the findings from her series of qualitative studies, she has developed the postpartum depression screening scale (PDSS). Currently Beck’s research is focused on PTSD after childbirth and she presented her work to date. In September, there were 27 participants in the study, 18 from New Zealand and the rest from the United States.

The themes of her presentation were a reminder of the dramatic negative consequences of occurrences we as health professionals deal with frequently. Emergency situations arise and we all do our job, often without a second thought as to the future impact of our actions (or inactions) on the woman and her family.

Beck also spoke at the TABS work shop. The response to both workshops was really positive. Workshops such as these, where the long-term impacts of the health care experience are discussed, can act as a reminder for anyone working with women at and around the time of childbirth to critically view their practice and that of their colleagues. Themes that feature in the research are around caring, communication and competence–the very things that were absent in my recent experience of the health system. Women in the study felt they were not shown caring, communication from health providers was poor, and they perceived their care as incompetent.

Through her research, Beck poses the question so many mothers ask: “Was it too much to ask to care for me?” As health professionals, we need to ask ourselves every day “how can I care for the needs of this client?”, because nursing is not just a profession, it is a caring profession.

* For further information on TABS http://www.tabs.org.nz/