I remember the day I was hired at PrairieCare and telling my family that I was going to be working with children and adolescents in an inpatient unit for acute mental illness. There were many concerned looks as I’m sure scenes from “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” flashed in their minds. Well I am certainly not Nurse Ratchet and my experience as a Psychiatric Nurse has been nothing stereotypical.
There is always so much emphasis placed on skills in nursing school. Student nurses are excited about the opportunities to drain a chest tube, suction, or place an IV. Me not so much. I learned quickly that what fulfilled my nursing career were the connections I made with my patients. My first day of clinical I was assigned to a Vietnam Vet who I perceived to be quite intimidating with his stoic appearance. He had just undergone an amputation and was recovering before being transferred to a rehab unit. In report I received information that he seemed to be depressed and had a low frustration tolerance. I remember the anger in his eyes as I tiptoed into his room trying not to disturb him to get a set of vitals. I did the usual, “Hi I’m Julia, I’m going to be your student nurse today.” I was met with a glare and no verbal response. I could have quickly grabbed a set of vitals and ran out of the room, but instead I saw a picture of a young lady. I asked if she was his daughter and he instantly became brighter as I sat and listened to him tell me about her. By the end of the shift he was calling me his favorite nurse and I left that experience feeling like I had really made a difference. I didn’t drain his wound or provide much medical care, I just listened and showed compassion for what he had been through.
When I come on to the inpatient unit I do not get pumped up for an EKG or lab draw like some nurses who prefer to use their medical skills do, I get excited about who I’m going to meet and challenge myself to hopefully teach them something before I go. It’s not always easy, but it is always worth it. Many patients are not ready to learn or open up. They come to us in crisis and in their most desperate time of need, but we’re strangers so why would they tell me some of their darkest thoughts? That’s where your real nursing skills go to work by using therapeutic communication, empathy, compassion, and trying to engage your patient on some level that helps them to feel safe. My mentor here said something great that I will never forget, “I can teach all the skills, but I can’t teach compassion, that’s something you just have to have.” This type of nursing is not for everyone. You have to have a thick skin, some humor, but most of all a want to be here because you love making a difference for these kids. For me it has been such a gift.