The Priceless Clarity of Inexperience

By Marcy Phipps, RN, a regular contributor to this blog. Her essay, “The Soul on the Head of a Pin,” was published in the May 2010 issue of AJN.

Heartstudy by James P. Wells, via Flickr

I was precepting a senior nursing student last week. During an idle moment, I asked her why she’d decided to go into nursing.

She shrugged, averted her eyes, and mumbled something like “I’ve just always wanted to.”

I didn’t press it, but I’m sure there’s more to it than that. I probably shouldn’t have asked, given that I cringe when posed the same question, and usually give a faltering and inadequate “I like helping people” kind of answer . . . when “that’s too personal of a question” would be more honest.

I’ve been a nurse for years, and there are certain aspects of the profession I wouldn’t attempt to broach in casual conversation. I doubt that I could have articulated my motivations when I was a student, even if I’d wanted to. That exchange, though, calls to mind one of the most defining experiences of my nursing career.

I was a senior nursing student, doing a clinical rotation in the ICU. My preceptor and I were caring for a patient who’d been in a motorcycle accident. He’d not sustained a head injury; he’d worn a helmet. But he’d suffered a high cervical injury, and it was complete. The weight of the helmet, combined with the force of the crash and pathological changes, had caused his neck to snap.  (“Like a stick!” I remember the trauma surgeon saying.) The poor man was wide awake but completely paralyzed.

My recollections of the specific events of that day are clouded by inexperience and shock. I only know that, at some point, a day that had seemed completely normal took a tragic turn. I remember standing by the patient’s bedside, helplessly, as his heart rate suddenly and inexplicably dropped and the trauma surgeon and code cart magically appeared at his bedside.

I remember it becoming incredibly busy and frenzied. In an effort to stay out of the way, I stationed myself at the head of the poor man’s bed.  I laid my hand on his forehead, mumbling futile platitudes as he gazed up at me with fear in his eyes, mouthing words that I never grasped for what felt like an incredibly long time, until he lost consciousness.

I remember his final moments in crystal detail.

Years have passed, and I still think of him often. (Mostly, I remember his eyes.) I’d like to think I was able to provide some measure of comfort in his last moments, for I’m sure he knew something was terribly wrong. I’m an employee in the same ICU today, and given the same situation, I wouldn’t be standing still, with my hand resting on a paralyzed and dying man’s furrowed brow. I’d be far busier with science than spirituality. In a situation like that, there simply wouldn’t be time for anything else.

While I was in nursing school (and even now, to be honest), I had the secret conviction that I was led to nursing as a calling, with a purpose to fulfill, and that there was possibly one specific person I was meant to help. I wonder, now, if that was my moment. It’s possible that, before I’d even graduated from nursing school, I helped the one person I was meant to help. Perhaps I was uniquely qualified, in a special way, to help that one specific person when I could still be more affected by the look in someone’s eyes than their vital signs.

I go to work anyway, though, just in case there’s someone else. And I hold students in the highest regard; the clarity born of inexperience can be priceless, even if we don’t discuss it.

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2016-11-21T13:11:53+00:00 September 22nd, 2011|career, Nursing, Patients, students|8 Comments
Chief flight nurse at Global Jetcare.


  1. Robin Krause October 17, 2011 at 2:43 pm

    Very well written ! I to had a similar experience in nursing school during my preceptor ship. I am a very new nurse (I haven’t even found my first job yet) but was very refreshed by your comments. During nursing school a lot of the veteran nurses treated some of the students very badly and with no respect. Which I could not understand as they to were once a student nurse. Maybe you could clear something up for me. They say nurses eat their young, why is that? Again thank you for your comments.

  2. Sandy Steer September 23, 2011 at 10:47 pm

    What a beautiful lesson for all of us, Marcy. No matter our profession or place in life, there is always that chance that we could be “the one” for someone. I hope I am up to it if that opportunity ever presents itself. Sandy Steer

  3. RehabRN September 23, 2011 at 10:07 pm


    I know the feeling. I became a nurse because I’m a fixer and I like people and technology. I like the part where people use the technology and sometimes just need a guide to get what they want/need.

    I know I’ve been that one nurse for a few people, who were just like your guy who died. I have had people tell me, “RehabRN, I wouldn’t have made it without you.” I have thought about that when a couple of these folks have passed away.

    I may have been the one for you, but little did you know, that you were the ones for me, too.

  4. Ginny September 23, 2011 at 9:16 am

    Excellently written. The fact that experience has not dimmed your clarity is not lost.


  5. JParadisiRN September 22, 2011 at 7:55 pm

    Another thoughtful, insightful post. Thanks for sharing Marcy.

  6. ems September 22, 2011 at 6:27 pm

    This is an amazing and extremely well-written story.

  7. Mary T Johnson September 22, 2011 at 5:02 pm

    I really like, “I’d be far busier with science than spirituality.” This is so true, unfortunately in many cases. I like to remind my nursing students to nurse the patient, not the computer.


  8. Vernon Dutton September 22, 2011 at 1:53 pm

    Great post!
    The Priceless Clarity of Inexperience can only be appreciated by the Experienced.

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