Being A Nurse

12.13.12 What It Takes To Do Our Job


Last week's events surrounding Princess Kate really disturbed me as the prank perpetrated by a couple of DJs led to two nurses being publicly humiliated and bullied for answering their phones. The nurse who first fell victim to this joke believed the Queen of England was on the line and transferred the call to Kate's nurse who gave out personal information. Each nurse made a mistake. Not a biggie, like administering the wrong drug or operating on the wrong patient. Their patient wasn't injured at all, but now, one nurse is dead.

Every nurse knows what these nurses endured in the wake of that call — an inquisition process that left them anxious, insecure and deeply upset. When health care workers make mistakes (and we all do), we likely face questioning by administrators and attorneys who assess the damage and our level of responsibility. It's an awful process where everything and everyone involved in the mistake is scrutinized. It's bad enough when your patient isn't famous. Add the scorn and judgment of thousands of online and media commenters and the emotional impact could be crushing. Crushing enough to commit suicide? Apparently, for one nurse it was.

Good nurses are sensitive people capable of providing compassionate, intimate care to strangers. That level of sensitivity is special, but it can also be difficult to endure. Nursing is a really hard job. We come to work with no idea who we'll take care of and what challenges we'll face. We may have one patient or eight. Before we take care of them, we must learn their medical and emotional statuses, treatment plans, medication schedules and personal information. When we meet our patient, we must form an immediate bond that makes them willing to accept our care. Then, we must balance our nursing approach to be professional and personal, sensitive enough to discern our patient's subtle cues, but detached enough to perform uncomfortable medical tasks. We juggle their families' needs, take care of other patients, support our co-workers, take orders from doctors, keep track of drugs, equipment, procedures, charting, visitors and somewhere in the back of our mind and at the bottom of our list, our own personal needs. We must be compassionate, scientific, organized and empathetic. We often do our job without adequate sleep and without enough support and with a smile whenever possible.

If we happen to be gullible enough to fall for a stupid prank, that speaks to our basic willingness to trust that people are inherently good. Believing that people deserve to be trusted, served and cared for and that they don't wish us harm is a virtue that's deep in most nurses' hearts. Because if it wasn't, why on Earth would anyone be willing to put their exquisitely sensitive heart and soul into taking care of a stranger. Why would we clean up their barf, wipe their brow and change their bandages? We do it because we're nurses.

My heart breaks for Jacintha Saldanha who committed suicide and for her family. My heart goes out to the other nurse involved in this case, who cared about Princess Kate's family, just like she would any patient's family. And to the DJs who made the biggest mistake, but apologized and are making amends, my hope is you'll be forgiven and will do great things now that you've learned how powerful your words and actions are. This is a lesson we can all use: Our words are powerful. Enough already with the judgment and humiliation. Everyone is carrying unseen burdens. Let's take care of each other.

Jeanne Faulkner, R.N., lives in Portland, Ore., with her husband and five children. Got a question for Jeanne? Email it to and it may be answered in a future blog post.

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