The Thing About Nursing

The best and worst part of nursing is being catapulted into intense human contact and intimacy. Nursing is like a crash-course, full immersion experience of what it means to be human. You’re bathing people. You’re witnessing them at their most shaken, at their most desperately hopeful, their weakest and at their absolute toughest. You meet their families, and within a matter of minutes, you’re talking about the details of their lives: how will they pay for this? What is their house like? Will they be able to get up and down the stairs? Who will walk the dog?

Who will decide what Mom’s code status will be?

It’s easy to slip into it being the day-to-day. It is the day-to-day, for nurses. But for every person we treat, it’s usually one of the days for them, not just any day. You’re meeting people at some of the more pivotal moments of their lives. And they let you right in, because you’re there, and you’re their nurse. It’s amazing, and it’s terrifying.

On Tuesday, I fed a man both his breakfast and his lunch. Eighty-two years old, a war veteran, he was cantankerous and demanding, all piss and vinegar and wit. His memory was going, but the combination of his sense of humor and his general ire were trying to hold it all together for him. One of the first things he told me, as I turned his frail, papery body in the bed, was “if you stick anything in my back, I will shoot you in the face.”

Later, as I watched him struggle with his eggs, laboriously getting the fork into them, and then dropping half of them in the process, I saw how each bite wore him out. He couldn’t afford to not eat them. “Can I help you with that?” I asked.

“Aw, jeez, this is just terrible, this is rotten,” he kept saying. “I just can’t stand this.”

“I don’t mind doing this at all,” I said. “I’ve got nothing else that I’m supposed to be doing right now. Here.” I fed him most of that plate, and later, most of his lunch.

“I really hate being like this,” he said. “I hate being so helpless.”

“I don’t mind,” I said. “I don’t mind doing it at all.”

“Don’t think that doesn’t help,” he said. “Don’t think it doesn’t help at all.” It was a gruff, tremendous admission. By lunchtime, he was calling me kiddo.

How many other jobs in the world would let you into someone’s life like that? Into their moments of abject vulnerability? As both the worst and the best in them shines through?

On Tuesday, I had a patient whose dementia was so advanced and whose body was so worn out, she could no longer speak, or communicate at all. And yet, every time I leaned over her to auscultate her lungs, or check her IV lines, she reached out, and grabbed my hand. I ended up doing my charting and, later, some of my schoolwork, in the chair next to her bed, just so that I could keep holding her hand. Did she think I was someone in particular? A daughter, a friend? Did she hear or understand when I told her I was a nursing student? Or did she just want another person there? I can’t know for sure, but I’ll say this–I’m so glad that I had the time to be there.

Some days, it’s terrifying, the responsibility that I’ve gotten myself into. Some days I wish I was still driving loaders.

Most days, though, it’s what gets me up and out of bed at o-dark-thirty to go to clinical.


*all patients and patient care-situations discussed on this blog are composites, with details changed to ensure total anonymity.

cross-posted with

Stay Up-To-Date

Get updates on the latest stories, from hot topics, to faculty research, alumni profiles, and more.

Ways to subscribe