Returning to work a better nurse

September / October 2017   Comments

Having been an intensive care nurse for 14 years, I am comfortable operating ventilators and monitors and managing bedside tests and off-unit transports. I can often anticipate when a patient’s condition is about to deteriorate and when a family member needs me to explain what’s going on. I work hard to blend the art and science of nursing into seamless care delivery. I’m clinically astute and emotionally available to my patients. I love what I do. I am a skilful and compassionate nurse.

Last year, I had the opportunity to be a patient. Not the visit-the-GP-once-a-year patient I used to be, but rather a patient who required a long and complicated surgery, a tracheostomy, 33 sessions of radiation and months of recovery. I was a 36-year-old woman with cancer, and it took me a while to get the hang of my new gig.

Being a patient is harder, scarier and more stressful than I ever imagined. I say that as someone who knows the system — someone confident enough to advocate for myself and savvy enough to access the resources available to me.

The nurses who cared for me were kind, efficient, competent and smart. My doctors were incredibly skilled and extremely attentive. My wonderful husband and loving family were with me around the clock. And yet, even with all this support, I was an anxious patient.

Perhaps it was the nurse in me. I knew what could go wrong and that it sometimes did, despite everyone’s good intentions. I watched faces and interpreted expressions for more information, reading furrowed brows and wrinkled noses as signs of concern or worry. I wanted constant reassurance. I wanted to know my recovery was going exactly as planned.

Without reassurance, I felt vulnerable.

I was used to being responsible for the patient’s experience and for implementing the care plan. Suddenly, I was privy only to what I was being told. The reins weren’t mine to hold. I had become the subject of the care plan. The role reversal made me uneasy.

I now believe that a sense of vulnerability is the patient experience. And, since the patient experience became my experience, I now understand the heavy weight of this vulnerability.

Looking back, it was in moments of meaningful interaction that I felt most comfortable. When my doctors, nurses and radiation technologists treated me like a person and a partner in my care, I felt strong, autonomous and whole. When I was treated like a patient, I felt taken care of but not necessarily cared for. The difference is subtle but significant.

Patients believe that nurses are going to do their job and provide the care they are entrusted to provide. It is when nurses also treat them as partners on the winding road of illness that patients can relax into their care. This is the space in which vulnerability dissipates.

I have returned to work a better nurse. My newly afforded insights into patient-hood made it so. I gave nursing my all before I had cancer, but I now weave the nuances of my patient experience into my practice. I deliver richer, deeper care through meaningful interaction, with a better understanding of the comfort it brings. I am a more present nurse.

Normalcy has crept back into my life, and cancer, all of a sudden, feels far away. With time, my scars will fade and the memories of my experience will blur, but I don’t want the lessons I’ve learned to be forgotten. I love what I do. I am a skillful and compassionate nurse, now armed to be a better one.

Andra Cardow, BScN, RN

Andra Cardow, BScN, RN, has been an ICU nurse in Canada, the U.S. and the U.K. She works full time at Toronto’s Casey House Hospital and is also a casual ICU nurse at Mount Sinai Hospital.

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