To Nurse Better
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To Nurse Better

When things were quiet again I asked him what training he’d had to become the director of hospital security. “I worked for 20 years in corrections,” he answered proudly, and I was saddened but not surprised.

In September 2010 I started an accelerated graduate entry nurse practitioner program to become a family nurse practitioner. Accelerated programs leave little time for preamble, since the idea is to take a total novice and turn her first into a nurse and then into a nurse practitioner in just three years. While the classroom information was vital, it was our clinical experiences that really initiated us into the profession. In just the second week of school, we were divided into small groups and assigned to clinical preceptors—hands–on teachers who introduced us to our first patients, curbed our mistakes, quelled our fears, and pushed and pulled and cajoled us into being nascent healthcare providers. In showing us how to give bed baths, suction secretions, insert Foley catheters, and hang IV bags, our preceptors really began showing us how to use our hands as healers.

In that first semester my patients also proved to be invaluable instructors. Talking to them, administering their medication, washing their bodies made me keenly aware of the delicate balance of vulnerability and power and trust and respect and intimacy that underlies all healthcare relationships. I hope, wherever those patients are now, they know how deeply I appreciate their patience and good humor and their collusion in my education.

In December, the first semester and the first clinical rotations ended. Four months into nursing school I had a basic understanding of what it means to be a nurse. Frankly, most days I still felt like an impostor in blue pajamas sporting a stethoscope I didn’t really know how to use and new Dansko clogs that squeaked with every step. But in an accelerated program, fast and furious is the name of the game. We went away for winter break—a much needed breather—and came back to something completely different: psychiatric nursing.

In preparation for these new clinicals, we were taught in class that we should not wear dangly jewelry or stethoscopes. That we should never let the patient get between us and the door. That psychiatric (psych) patients could escalate quickly; psych patients could have surprising triggers; psych patients could be very unpredictable. And psych patients could be violent. We were taught about physical and chemical restraints, and about show of force. We were cautioned, as students, to stay out of the way if things got tense on the floor. In stark contrast to medical patients, psych patients were made to sound less like people who had diseases and more like adversaries. I drove to my first day on the floor with trepidation.

My new preceptor had spent her entire career in psych. She loved her job, loved the care of psychiatric patients. She set up a rotation because she wanted our entire clinical group to get full exposure to the breadth of psychiatric services offered by this medium–sized community hospital. We would each get to spend shifts on the locked psych floor, observing outpatient group therapy sessions, and in the psych emergency department (ED).

I rotated to the psych ED for the first time on a Friday night. The first couple hours of the shift were very slow. I started talking to the mustachioed guard on duty, who looked as bored as I felt. He told me about his kids, I told him about nursing school. He seemed nice.

When our conversation flagged, I explored the psych ED. It didn’t take long—just a short hallway with a bathroom, the social workers’ office, and two patient rooms without doors. The majority of the designated psych beds were actually around the corner in the main room of the medical ED—stretchers lined against the wall, without curtains or any [End Page 98] other attempt at privacy. I noticed that from where the guard stood at the corner of the psych hall he had a pretty good view of all the beds. Then again, so did most of the other patients...