Sarah Szulecki, BSN, RN, is a telemetry nurse at a hospital in New York State.
As a new graduate nurse, I’ve found that adjusting to the microcosm of the hospital floor—its SBAR reports detailing a ‘here and now,’ its constant exchange of admissions and discharges, its wide spectrum of emotional extremes—has been challenging.
The experienced nurses on my telemetry floor tell me that it generally takes about one full year to start feeling as though you know what you’re doing. In the meantime, I find myself catching glimpses of scenes I hope I’ll someday be able to handle with grace—rather than with my current bumbling clumsiness.
A patient’s granddaughter is escorted into the hallway as staff flocks to her grandmother’s code blue, and I think of all the wrong things to say as she starts to cry.
As I examine his excoriated skin, a depressed patient looks humiliated and struggles to tell me that his home is infested with bedbugs—in my gut, I feel a grim helplessness about his future when he’s discharged a few days later.
A patient who has a sky-high hemoglobin A1c level admits that he has neither the desire nor the money to care for his diabetes. My pleas for change sound childish and naive to even my own ears.
These first few months of being a nurse amalgamate feelings of failure and exhilaration and, possibly most prominently, a desire to fix—to have the right answers, the right words, the right social services for each struggling, sick patient.
It’s true that I’m shocked by everything, jump at every telemetry alarm, call the doctor unnecessarily in the middle of the night. But, on the other side of the scale, at least I’m quick with electronic documentation, like many of my fellow nursing school friends who have been using computers since toddlerhood. And there’s a wealth of textbook knowledge, freshly learned and floating around in my head. In particular, I can hear the urgings of my community health professor to never forget how public health shapes each patient’s life.
New graduate nurses are unique in that our inexperience gives us a gift: the ability and the duty to ask “why.” We belong to a widely trusted and yet often politically silent profession. Personal tendencies that influenced our decisions to pursue a career in nursing—in my own case, a desire for peace and healing—may seem to contrast starkly with the political divisiveness of the times. But, if we are so inclined, we can embrace the opportunity to connect what we see in our patients to the world outside of the hospital.
For example, we see patients working multiple minimum wage jobs who cannot afford to take care of their health properly—perhaps, it occurs to me, we can advocate for a higher minimum wage. We see the huge differences in the quality of the insurance coverage our patients hold (if they have it at all)—maybe a single-payer health care system could be something worth fighting for. We treat the patients targeted by political candidates who speak of barring those of certain nationalities or creeds from our country—and we love those patients deeply.
My naivete enables me to envision a future for health care, for the patients I treat, and for their children. I feel more politically charged than ever before because I am a member of a trusted profession who still feels hope about the future of health care, rather than one who over years and decades has seen current and past health care systems fail beloved patients. Perhaps it’s a childish mindset, but it informs the close attention I find myself paying to the changing climate of my country—to the political candidates whose election may decide how my patients receive health care, support themselves financially, and even feel about their own worth and identity as Americans.
As a new generation of nurses, technologically savvy and eyes widened to the world of health care, perhaps there is no better time than now for us to ask the world what we’re asking constantly at work: why?