The Day I Realized Nursing School Only Teaches You Two Things

I had tossed and turned the entire night before. The anxiety steadily building up inside of me, preventing sleep and peace from ever coming. I walked slowly towards the building’s back entrance, contemplating what the next twelve hours would hold for me. I felt the butterflies in my stomach, and my hands tremor as I swiped my badge across the time clock. This was it. The moment I had spent the last two years working, sweating, crying, and praying for; and the last three months preparing for. My first day. Alone. A new nurse.

I still remember the assignment. My rooms felt secluded from everyone else’s. Nervous and slow, cautious and careful, I spent the next twelve hours trying to hold it together… for me and my patients. And I survived (thankfully, so did my patients.) The next week, the next month, the next year even, were full of firsts. Even now, with two years of experience under my belt, I learn something new everyday.

Some days are easy. Some days are hard. Some days you’re swimming against the current, and the moment you finally break through the waves for a breath of air, the tide pulls you back under.

Some days you feel like a real nurse. Other days you don’t.

I’ve been blessed enough to have the opportunity to teach, one of my favorite things about nursing. I tell all my nursing students and all the new nurses that I have the opportunity to train,

“Nursing school only teaches you two things:

One, how not to kill someone.

Two, how to keep someone alive long enough to go get someone who really knows what the heck they are doing.”

No matter how competitive or challenging, there is not a single nursing school that can ever fully prep you for the real world of nursing. It just can’t.

The majority of what shapes you into a good nurse is going to come from your training on the job, and the nurse’s gut and intuition that only comes with practice and experience. Everyone is different. Don’t ever let anyone tell you your personality and attitude are not important for nursing because they are. They are arguably two of the most important things you bring to the table. An eagerness and willingness to learn are exceptional traits in a new nurse.

The ability to take constructive criticism with a positive attitude and apply it to your practice is not only preferred, but necessary.

You’re going to screw up. You’re going to be slow. You’re human. Everyone learns at a different pace. Don’t fight your personality. You are who you are, but understand there is always room to better yourself and grow. ICU nurses have a very different way of thinking and caring for patients than ER nurses. ER nurses are vastly different than med-surge nurses. OB is a foreign, alien planet all on its own with a language that only OB nurses can speak. Yet each area of nursing is individualized and imperative in providing care to patients.

I was lucky enough to choose a department where my personality was a fit from the start of my nursing career, and I have no desire to leave anytime soon. I’m laid back, go with the flow, roll with the punches, spontaneous, always on the go, unorganized yet task oriented, and thrive under pressure and amidst chaos. I thought I wanted pediatrics, but somehow landed in ER; and I wouldn’t change it for the world. It’s a better fit for me than I ever could have imagined.

The point is, what area of nursing you thought you wanted to do, may not be what is the best fit for you. You may be lucky enough to start your career in the department or specialty you’re going to stay. Or like many others, it may take you awhile to find what fits. The beauty of nursing is there are so many different areas and opportunities that you can choose from. Your personality is what makes you unique, and you can bring something to the table other nurses cannot. You just have to find the department/unit/speciality that suits you. It takes time to know. Don’t give up.

The director of the department where I work said something in my interview that I will never forget. She told me, “I’m not worried about your skills. We can teach you those. I need someone whose personality and attitude are a good fit for the department. Someone who is positive and is going to make the unit a better place by being part of the team.”

So new nurse. Don’t fret. Your skills will come. Your nurse brain will kick in. 

You’ll develop that intuition. Just ASK FOR HELP! It’s intimidating and scary and overwhelming. The whole first year, you may feel like you’re drowning; but it gets better. Find someone you trust, a confidante. Someone you can vent to. Someone who you not only can learn from, but who can also teach you. Find that experienced nurse and follow them around like an annoying shadow. You can never ask too many questions, and there is no such thing as a stupid question. It’s better to ask and to be sure than to guess and make a mistake.

Keep your head up. Maintain that positive attitude. Own your personality, and use it to bring a unique perspective and outlook to the department where you work.

And remember, you’re never alone.

To the skilled nurse with that wide eyed, fresh-faced new grad following you around. Be patient. Be understanding. Be helpful. Be supportive. Be encouraging. You were once there too.

And for the love of God, swallow some of your cynicism, and let some of that new grad optimism rub off on you. You’d be surprised the spark it can ignite, and how much a little positive thinking can affect your practice.

Be the nurse that shows love to the unlovable patient.

Be the nurse that works against all odds to make a difference.

Be the nurse that breathes life into the department.

Be the nurse that encourages and builds up her (or his) teammates.

Be the nurse that inspires other nurses.

Disclaimer: I am by no means claiming to be this perfect, optimistic, nothing but smiles kind of nurse. But down to my core, I care. I strive for kindness and optimism both towards my patients and coworkers (although, sometimes it’s very hard). But yes, I have a group of nurses I vent to. You have to in order to stay sane, but negative energy is more contagious than MRSA and even harder to treat. Find those nurse friends you trust, vent to them, but keep it between you. I never want to be the nurse whose name appears on the schedule and brings a whirlwind of negative connotations.

I want to be the nurse whose name appears on the schedule and people think, “Well even if today sucks, at least she’s here.” 

Strive to be that nurse.


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