I often say that I've been a nurse since I was six years old but became an RN in 2010. I grew up in a house where I helped care for three different grandparents as they passed on from this life due to cancer and complications from various chronic illnesses.
I was exposed to the hospital environment at a very young age and began to appreciate the role of nurses almost immediately. Even at the young age of six, I recognized that it was the nurses who were in and out of my grandmother's hospital room with each IV beep or to administer pain medications and change central line dressings. As I matured I was introduced to the world of cardiac surgery, in the early 1990s when only a handful of facilities were performing coronary artery bypass grafts. It was a nurse who explained how the procedure would be performed to help my grandfather's weak heart and sparked my interest in cardiac nursing. In my senior year of high school, I was deeply involved in the discussion with my family regarding decision-making and how to best help my other grandfather in his final few months of life.
All of those experiences helped shape the nurse I am today. It just took a while for me to realize it. After all of my exposure to death and cancer I thought I would avoid the sad parts of nursing and go into a specialty where I could help people get better and go home. I immediately went to work on a cardiac stepdown unit providing care for patients with acute and chronic cardiac issues.
Looking back, I realize that was insanely naive of me. Of course people die before, during, and after cardiac surgery and from cardiac complications. I mean, I learned about all of the things that could and do go wrong in nursing school. But I could explain the cardiac cycle backward and in my sleep, and I knew all of the various medications we could use to treat just about every problem. So as a new grad, I set out to change the world and never lose a patient. Because, after all, isn't the point of healthcare keeping people alive?
Obviously, it didn't take too long for me to realize that all of the medications and procedures in the world wouldn't be enough to keep everyone alive. It took even longer for me to understand that the point of healthcare might be to keep people alive, but that goals in nursing are often quite different. And even longer for me to appreciate the beauty and grace of dying in peace and with dignity.I have been so lucky to witness a family matriarch tell her family that she is tired and ready to leave this world, and I have watched a husband lie in bed cuddling his passing wife in her final hours. And you know what? I don't run from death anymore. I find those situations so fulfilling. Not because I want to see people die or lose their loved ones, but because I see that they are loved and appreciate that final phase of life. I cherish the connection that I have with my patients and their families. I relish every opportunity to bring comfort in those situations.
My definition of nursing has evolved over the last eight years, and I'm sure it will continue to evolve. I always wanted to be a nurse so that I could help people. I think that it is a commonly shared idea among nurses. We want to help people. Sometimes, nursing is helping a new mom master breastfeeding. Sometimes it is cheering when a patient has a bowel movement after a major gastric surgery. And sometimes it is helping a patient make arrangements to live out the remainder of her days surrounded by loved ones in the comfort of her home where there are so many happy memories. Quite often nursing isn't keeping people alive or saving people, but it's always about caring, compassion, and human connection.
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