It’s probably been said a million times before but it’s worth repeating: nursing isn’t just a career; it’s a profession. Some would even say it’s a calling. In any case I can’t believe that in just under two months I will have been a nurse for three years. It’s absolutely mind-blowing to think of all the things I’ve learned & experienced in just three years. But it’s not just “nursing knowledge” that I’ve gained. The things I’ve learned as a nurse are just as often lessons about life itself. These lessons are actually very universal but I feel blessed to have chosen a profession that really does MATTER, a profession in which no matter how stressful or busy my shift may be, I still know I did at least a few things to make someone’s day a little better. And I feel blessed to be in a profession that because of all these things brings continual growth to me as a human being.
Today I would like to share the ten most important life lessons I have learned in my first three years as a nurse. In ten or twenty years I’m sure I’ll have plenty more to add to this list & then it will be even more interesting to look back on these.
1. Life is way too short to do anything but have as much fun as you can. I’m not trying to say we should just party it up all the time & neglect our responsibilities in life. But what I am saying is that NONE of us, no matter how young or old, is guaranteed tomorrow, so no matter our current circumstances we need to truly make the most of every single day we’re alive. Whatever goals or dreams you have in life, chase them NOW because you never know when you might not have the opportunity again. If your current circumstances in life are making you miserable, find a way to change them, & if that’s impossible then change your attitude. Life is far too short to be miserable all the time.
2. On a similar token, life is often cruelly unfair. Bad things happen to good people ALL the time. It’s horrible & it can & will make you question everything you’ve ever believed, especially when you’re still young & vulnerable & trying to figure out life. But that’s ok. Question away. Just don’t let bitterness take over or you will be of no use to anyone, including yourself. At the end of the day if there is a purpose to life, it’s very simple: the purpose of life is to live it, to soak up as many experiences as you can, to have as much fun as you can, & to give & receive love as much as is possible.
3. Life is what we make it. As mentioned above, circumstances are often unfair & not entirely within our control. But our attitude about them can make a world of difference. It’s perfectly normal & acceptable to experience sadness & anger when bad things happen, whether in relation to our health or otherwise. But if we never move past this stage, we will be miserable forever. We have to learn to process our emotions & move forward in life no matter what hardships we’re facing. As Pema Chodron so wisely stated “Nothing ever goes away until it has taught us what we need to know. If we run a hundred miles an hour to the other end of the continent in order to get away from the obstacle, we find the very same problem waiting for us when we arrive. It just keeps returning with new names, forms, manifestations until we learn whatever it has to teach us…” For example, I’ve seen diabetics on dialysis in their 20’s & 30’s because they have refused to deal with their disease in a responsible manner & have continually not taken care of themselves at all. These people are often obviously in denial of how sick they are but this “protective mechanism” of denial does not protect them from the physical consequences of their disease. I’ve also seen diabetics who are in better shape & better health than most non-diabetics because they have a good attitude & take care of themselves, even though it is not easy. Please don’t think I’m saying those who suffer negative outcomes, especially at a young age, DESERVE those things. Of course not. I’m just saying we cannot always control the cards we’re handed in life, but we can control how we play them.
4. Tragedy will prove the mettle of a family. Families who are close are better able to handle tragedies because they have made plenty of good memories together & have actually had those difficult conversations about end of life issues. Families who aren’t close will be completely ravaged by tragedy & are often unable to let go because they realize, far too late, what they’ve neglected. It can be gut-wrenching to watch families break down during tragic experiences, but what we as nurses learn from this is that we need to have those difficult conversations with our own families. No matter how awkward it may be, we have to talk to our loved ones about what they would want done if they had a massive stroke, car accident, or some other tragic injury in which they become incapacitated & unable to speak for themselves. Whether you’re in the medical field or not, please think about these issues. I don’t care if you’re 20 or 50 or 80. You NEED to think about these situations & make your wishes known. And you need to know the wishes of your loved ones. God forbid you should face such a horrible scenario but if it should happen, it is better to be prepared & have some kind of plan than to have to bear the responsibility of making those decisions without knowing what your loved one would want done.
5. Nursing has taught me that I can handle WAY more than I thought I could. I can be up all day & work all night with no problem (not every night of course but sometimes). I can take care of between 3-5 sick patients & still get my charting done & leave on time at the end of my shift (most of the time). I can start IVs on people who have almost no veins to offer (not always of course, but more often than I ever dreamed possible). I can help families process the impending death of a loved one. I can hug & cry with family members when that death occurs. I can clean up any & all body fluids without feeling nauseous (at least 99% of the time). I can call a doctor at 3:00 a.m. & know exactly how to sum up the situation & what orders I need in two minutes or less. I can leave my lunch to go collect a stool sample, wash my hands, & go right back to eating like that is completely normal. I can be hit, kicked, & scratched by confused patients without losing my temper. I can be yelled at by angry patients or family members without wanting to run out of the room crying (ok, sometimes I still want to but I don’t). I can call a family member in the middle of the night to tell them their loved one might not make it till morning without breaking out in a cold sweat. I can make patient assignments for the next shift even though I know that no matter what I do there will always be someone upset with their assignment. I can listen to all kinds of crazy stories from patients, some confused, some not, without batting an eye. Basically I can do so many things that I never thought I could do & this gives me the confidence to know that I can accomplish just about anything, at work or at home, if I work at it hard enough. Some things will be incredibly difficult at first but practice really does make perfect, or at least close to it.
6. Sometimes people can be incredibly stupid. If you’re not in the medical field, you would not believe some of the crazy things we see & hear in the hospital. Sometimes it’s enough to really make you question humanity. But as nurses we have to learn to let it go, to remember the patients who make it all worth it, & to understand that the stupidity we see is often rooted in ignorance & lack of education. Some of this is willful ignorance for sure, but some of it is not. If I ever become so jaded & cold that I cannot see the good in others, I pray someone will tell me STAT so I can leave nursing because that is the point at which I would be useless & no longer worthy of this profession. But I hope that day never comes.
7. If you don’t take care of yourself, you cannot take care of anyone else. Yes, as nurses we all have shifts when we go 8 hours or more without using the bathroom, eating, or drinking a sip of water. But we can’t let this become the norm or we will burn out completely. This concept is why I only work OT once a month at most (occasionally more if there are special circumstances but those are rare). I know that no matter how good the money is, working OT every week is just not worth it. I know I need my days off to relax & recharge in order to be mentally & physically capable of being the best nurse possible, not to mention the best wife, friend, daughter, etc. Nursing may be a calling but it isn’t our only calling in life. If we let it overwhelm us & take over our whole lives, we will soon find that the joy of it has been lost anyway.
8. There are a lot of people who love to complain but don’t want to actually do anything to effect change. This is applicable to coworkers as much as it is to patients. We all have to vent sometimes, especially in a profession as busy & stressful as nursing. But we need to be conscious of how much we’re just complaining without actually accomplishing anything. Trust me, I see things that anger or frustrate me all the time. But I try to come up with practical solutions to as many of these problems as I can. Otherwise I know I’m just spreading negativity & bringing everyone down, including myself.
9. Change is hard. Whether it’s a new computer system, a new policy, or a new piece of equipment, there is a learning curve for everything in nursing. As human beings none of us really LIKES change. It’s hard for everyone. But if we want to survive as nurses we have to learn to adapt constantly & the same can be said of life in general. In nursing, as in life, there is always something new to learn & that is part of what makes this such an exciting & interesting profession. Not a night goes by that I don’t learn something new & I love that. It’s what keeps me engaged when I’m exhausted & wondering why the heck I chose this path anyway.
10. Going back to the first point, life is way too short to stress about things that really don’t matter. As one of my favorite books (Walk Two Moons by Sharon Creech) put it, “In the course of a lifetime, what will it matter?” I try to ask myself this question when I find myself stressing about something that I know probably isn’t worth the anxiety it’s causing me, whether at work or at home. This is exactly why our house is usually a wreck & I’m chronically behind on housework. I realize that at the end of my life, whenever that may be, I’d rather have spent my free time cuddling with my husband & my puppy or making memories with my family & friends than obsessing over having a spotless house. Trust me, I’m not living in a pig-sty, but our house is far from super organized & I could not care less. Our house will never be featured on some kind of interior decorating blog or be filled with Pinterest-inspired crafts. But it is full of love & affection & that is what matters in the end. By all means, if having a spotless house brings you joy, feel free to keep it up. I’m just saying we shouldn’t waste our precious time on things that really don’t matter if they aren’t also bringing us joy. When I’ve cared for patients at the end of their lives I’ve never once heard someone say they wished they’d spent more time cleaning or organizing their house or working or doing any of the mundane things that so often stress us on a day-to-day basis. Instead what I’ve heard is “I’d wish I’d spent more time with my friends & family.” Or “I wish I’d learned to play the piano like I always wanted.” Again it comes back to what I said at the beginning: life is far too short to do anything but have as much fun as we can.
If you’re a nurse (or anything medical) & you’re reading this, what life lessons do you think our profession has taught you? I’d love to hear your thoughts.