Finding your feet in third year: a lesson from A&E

*Disclaimer: this post includes description of a traumatic situation which some may find distressing* 

When I started 3rd year, I was excited! I had a fantastic end to second year, and I truly felt ready to enter my final year of my degree. But with that excitement came the endless worrying about jobs, dissertation, and work for other modules. When placement began, I realised I felt like a complete novice again! Despite only having two months off over summer, I felt like I couldn’t remember how to do anything on placement (clinically speaking). I was even putting on blood pressure cuffs the wrong way. Everyone asked me what year I was in, and saying “I’m in third year, but I don’t know what I’m doing” every time was ruining my confidence.

It wasn’t until my 5th shift when I finally started to feel less on edge. I was working in resus (for the most critically ill patients in a&e), and we had an man with chest pain and fluctuating consciousness. Since he was in a bad way, a few anaesthesiologists from ICU came to set up mechanical ventilation for the patient. It was really fantastic to see everyone working together almost seamlessly, and including me in their decision making. I was given little jobs such as getting supplies or checking the observations but it was all I could really help with at the time. After a very long trip to CT, it was clear our patient was deteriorating. As soon as he was back in resus, our patient went into cardiac arrest. The nurse I was working with asked if I had done CPR before, and if I wanted to get involved. To my own surprise, I agreed. I have been learning CPR for well over 5 years now, so I knew that I could help in some way. Each person did 2 minutes of CPR, whilst keeping an eye on the defib heart monitor. Due to the patient being on a hospital bed, we all had to stand on a stool in order to reach, which I found really bizarre!

I wish I could accurately describe the feeling of trying to save someone’s life, but I can’t. There was so much adrenaline rushing around me, but all I kept thinking about was how I was currently involved in the worst day of someone’s life.

During CPR, the doctors confirmed (through an echo-cardiogram) that there was nothing left we could do. Myself and the nurse went to work on ensuring our patient was at peace, and ready to be seen by his family. They were in shock and declined, which I understand. And our day went on. I had a debrief with the nurse, and a HCA who had also performed CPR for the first time, which was lovely. We spoke about how CPR is so different from how it is often portrayed. I had never thought about the fact that you won’t be able to reach a patient without standing on a stool, or how someone must time each session of CPR.

Despite being a high-pressure and sad situation, it helped me a lot. I did something I had never done, but had extensively prepared for. If you feel like you are back at square one, despite being a third year, I challenge you to think about what you do on placement. I think there is a tendency to see progression as acquiring new skills, but sometimes its about putting our current skills to use in a new situation.

 

 

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“The doctor says I’m dying”: tough conversations about death

One of my most vivid placement memories was my first conversation with a patient about dying. One afternoon I went to check on Joan (name changed), a lady in a side room on an elderly ward. I was helping her to have a drink when she looked up and said: “the doctor says I’m dying.”

I froze. My stomach turned and my mind started racing, taken aback by a statement I felt totally unprepared to respond to. I had grown fond of Joan and to see her so distressed was upsetting. I felt a sense of panic, worried that I might say the wrong thing.

I knew from the handover that morning that Joan was receiving end of life care and from what the other nurses had said, she was deteriorating and it was unlikely that she would get any better.

Taking a deep breath, I thought back to our communication lectures which covered how to deal with difficult questions. I drew up a chair next to Joan and holding her hand, I asked some straightforward questions like ‘when did you discover that?’ and ‘how does that make you feel?’, trying my best to mask my own anxiety and appear relaxed.

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While I think I started off ok, all of a sudden I panicked; I didn’t know what to say next.  Almost without thinking, I said: “Don’t worry Joan, we’re all doing everything we can to get you better and back to your normal self.”

I immediately felt awful and her face said it all; she knew I was covering. I said it out of a desire to help Joan stay hopeful, optimistic, but in reality it sounded trite, like I was brushing her off and trying to avoid a deeper conversation. I think that it made her feel worse.

Kicking myself, I spoke to my mentor who reassured me that she too struggled with questions like those and some research when I got home that night revealed that I wasn’t alone – apparently it’s common for healthcare professionals to avoid or block difficult questions, particularly about death or dying. I suppose we like to focus on how we can ‘fix’ things and don’t want our patients to lose hope.

Looking back, I wish I’d spent more time with Joan, even just to sit quietly by her side. She may have had more questions that she wanted to ask and as a student nurse, I may not have known the answers but I could have found out on her behalf.

Honesty and courage are such important parts of nursing, especially at the end of someone’s life. Sometimes the best thing we can do is to be there; to listen, answer questions and ease fears – or just to hold someone’s hand and let them know that they are not alone.