Nurses Eat Their Young

by Dec 7, 2016

Originally written for Vertigo magazine 

“Nurses eat their young”, I was warned, ominously, before starting my nursing degree. It brought to mind images of snarling ladies in starched white, Florence Nightingale–esque uniforms, fangs bared, dripping with blood.

What horrors was I to expect? I was terrified before my first clinical placement. I wondered if the lab sessions, textbook readings and videos on subcutaneous injections would really prepare me for looking after real-life patients. Worst of all, I was anxious about dealing with the terrifying nurses we’d heard about. As it turns out, the vast majority of nurses are kind and supportive. I’ve rarely been subject to bullying from older nurses – no newbie nurses were ever devoured in their midst. Nonetheless, nursing is a fast-paced, stressful profession, with enormously high stakes. Every one of us has heard a horror story about the result of student errors, and the thought of your mistake being told to subsequent students as a “how not to” incident, keeps us all on edge.

Clinical placements form a large part of both the nursing and midwifery degrees, with an increasing number of hours required each year. While UTS does its best to prepare us for the workplace, there is nothing like being in a real hospital ward. Now in our third year, my fellow students and I have experienced hundreds of hours in emergency departments (ED), intensive care units (ICU), nursing homes, childcare centres, community mental health teams, mental health in-patient units, children’s hospitals, non-government organisations (NGOs), and hospital wards. Some students choose to undertake placements in rural or regional areas, and the stories they bring back from far-flung parts of the state are fascinating.

The length of time we spend off-campus on clinical placements – which eats into our face-to-face teaching time and ability to work in paid employment – increases the challenge of balancing the other demands of university. Compulsory classes, exams, family commitments, assignments and the dreaded group project are hard enough to juggle without taking out up to six weeks per semester. And the shortened teaching sessions, which reduce our face-to-face time even further? Let’s not even go there.

As I hurtle through the final year of my nursing degree, I certainly feel like I’ve been chewed up and spat out. I am exhausted. The shift work and physical demands are enormous, and that’s before you add the emotional strain.

This week on placement I have looked after a four-year-old boy on a ventilator awaiting a lung transplant, a nine-month-old baby with a new diagnosis of cancer whose heartbreaking cries of “No! Mama, mama!” rang out across the ward while she had her IV cannula inserted, and a five-year-old girl who is wheelchair-bound as a result of a motor vehicle accident. Her parents can’t visit and she cries when she is lonely.

Nursing is a tough gig.

As nursing students, we are not afraid of blood, sweat and tears, as we crawl wearily, half-broken and dishevelled, towards our goal. However, for many of us, the goal of working as a registered nurse (RN) may not eventuate, at least at first. The number of new graduate positions being offered in 2017 is far less than the number of student nurses graduating. We’re all acutely aware that we may not be one of the lucky ones selected. We’ve submitted applications and begun interviews over the last few months and continue to do so. We’re approaching the gruesome end and it’s becoming frighteningly real.

But it’s not all doom and gloom. I’ve loved studying at UTS. I have met the most amazing people while studying nursing, and have made life-long friends. I was involved in setting up UTS’s first student society for nursing and midwifery students, UTS HUGS, and the small but dedicated group on the general committee are doing fantastic things. Regular social events are being planned, and the inaugural nursing and midwifery pub-crawl was held in August. Professional development courses such as First Aid and Mental Health First Aid are in the works, and in June we teamed up with batyr to deliver seminars on preventing burnout, managing stress and maintaining good mental health while studying.

I entered this nursing degree with a sense of trepidation, nervousness, and fear, but also with excitement. It is a privilege to be a part of a patient’s life on their journey to recovery. While it has been a more challenging endeavour than I initially expected, it has also been more rewarding than anticipated. On one hand I am petrified at the thought of being responsible for my own patients in mere months, but on the other I am also eager to get my teeth into it.

Day in the life of a nursing student

5:00am Alarm goes off. Press snooze. Lie in bed thinking about another day of unpaid labour.
5:15am Haul yourself out of bed and spend fifteen minutes inspecting the new wrinkles and under-eye circles you gained overnight.
5:30am Walk to the train station in sensible (read: ugly) nursing shoes with the non-slip soles.
6:30am Drink a very strong coffee – heart palpitations. Wonder if it’s caffeine overdose or anxiety.
7:00am Receive handover from night shift. Get the good news that the one-year-old you’re looking after has frequent, explosive diarrhoea, is infectious and likes to spit milk onto people’s faces.
7:30am Milk in face, Round 1 of 16.
8:00am Spend forty minutes trying to decipher which medication your doctor has written on the chart. Give up.
9:00am Get excited for your fifteen minute coffee break only to be disappointed when it turns into a five minute break – that patient who uses their call bell like a ketamine PCA is at it again.
10:30am Realise that you need to pee and that there is milk in your hair.
10:45am Discover you forgot to give then-thirty a.m. medications. Panic. Cry. Think about alternate career options because surely this means you have failed placement and can no longer be a nurse. Apologise profusely to preceptor RN, who tells you meds aren’t due until eleven a.m.
11:03am Patient refuses medication. Panic. Cry.
12:00pm Spend entire lunch break trying to finish your essay on chronic health self-management.
12:30pm Begin hand exercises so that you can get through paperwork that is to come. Keep holding onto that pee – you have a bladder of steel.
2:01pm Notice patient notes and see that the doctors have ordered twelve-lead ECG for one-year-old sleeping patient.
2:03pm Attempt six times to attach ECG leads to wriggling, crying, tired child. You finally get a good print out and when cleaning up, accidentally throw the print out in the clinical waste bin. Panic. Cry.
3:00pm Write up notes from the shift and try 15 times to spell the word ‘diarrhoea’. End up writing “frequent loose stools.”
3:30pm Finally go and break the seal. You earned it, ya champ!
3:40pm As you stagger out of the hospital into actual, natural daylight you see a patient you looked after yesterday. They shout, “Hello, nice nurse! I am going home!” You remember why you wanted to be a nurse.
5:35pm Fall asleep on couch.
8:00pm Wake up with the imprint of your laptop keyboard on your face. There is still milk in your hair.


Featured image courtesy of Pexels.

By Deanna Rowe

By Deanna Rowe

Registered Nurse

Deanna Rowe is a Registered Nurse and proud UTS Alumni. She completed the Bachelor of Nursing after more than 10 years in superannuation education and training.