Secret Diary of a Student Nurse (I)
Updated: Feb 21
My student nurse journey was absolutely diabolical – and for the most part, I mean that in a good way. Some of the situations I got myself into were beyond belief, from having a shouting match with another student across a lecture theatre (mid-lecture), to having a full-blown meltdown in the course leader’s office the night before an exam because my car wouldn’t start. As the three years progressed I seemed to get myself into more and more trouble, each passing incident slightly more ridiculous than the one before.. and funnily enough, there were a few occasions where I ended up taking the blame for situations that had nothing to do with me. It was in no small part due to autism that I really struggled to understand the expectations of me during my training, and I wish here to share a few stories with you as to how I misunderstood others, how they misunderstood me, and how I’ve learned lessons in social life (and hospital politics).
You must bare in mind that for the vast majority of my nurse training, I didn’t disclose the fact I’m autistic; for the most part I didn’t understand how having autism impacted on my views and behaviour..
My first placement was on a care of the elderly ward (for reasons that I cannot yet fathom, I was not allowed to use the word ‘geriatric’). I enjoyed this placement, it was my opportunity to really throw myself into hospital life; a world away from what I was used to. I ran around the ward, answering buzzers, spending time with patients, and doing everything I was supposed to be doing.
Or so I thought.
I had gained for myself a reputation amongst the staff as being someone who doesn’t play well in a team, and who isn’t very good at following instruction. Why? Because I spent practically no time following around my mentor. I hadn’t yet learned that a student’s job is to stick to their mentor like a limpet and follow them throughout the day to get a feel of what being a nurse is; no-one had explicitly told me that was what I was supposed to do. So, by the time that placement had finished, I hadn’t spent very much time learning from my mentor at all.. it actually wasn't until the end of my penultimate placement that one of my mentor's pointed out I didn't do a huge amount of shadowing.
I also managed to offend a senior nurse by singing loudly at the nurse’s station when he was trying to hold a board round; and irritate the ward manager by repeatedly asking her why none of the staff liked each other.. but I suppose they're other stories which are best left forgotten.
Looking back, I don’t know how I survived this placement. It was my most miserable. There was a healthcare assistant on this ward who made it very apparent from the beginning that she didn’t like me being around. Whenever I was on the same shift as her, I would invariably find myself crying in the toilets over the way that she’d behave. At the time, I believed I was the worst student nurse there had ever been.
On one occasion, a patient had been discharged and she had told me I had to turn over the bed space, on my own. I cleaned and disinfected the bed, the chair, the drawers; replenished the oxygen equipment, plumbed in the suction, then re-made the bed with the most perfect hospital corners that had ever been achieved. I took my time, knowing that I had to do this properly because I didn’t want her finding any flaws in what I’d done. As I was walking back towards the nurse’s station, I hear her voice behind me: “Do you really think that is suitable for the next patient?”
I vividly remember looking back at the bed space and studying it the best I could to find the thing that I’d missed. She marched me back to the bedside, “you would be happy to put the next patient in that would you?!” I’m still scanning, still looking for what I had missed, what I hadn’t done. She moaned on for a while, but you know what it turned out to be? The discharged patient’s name was still written on the board above the bed – that’s what the great sin was. The NA stripped the freshly made bed, threw the sheets on the floor, and made me do it all again, because in amongst all the angst of doing an A* job, I'd neglected to wipe a whiteboard.
I believed all her huffing and puffing, I believed for those six weeks that I was the problem, that I was simply incapable of doing anything right. But now I’m qualified. Now I know better.
I used to think that substantive staff were in a league close to angels, that they'd made it (whatever "it" was), that everything they said was gospel. Thing is, now I am one of those substantives and I have a new perspective. We're all just people, flawed people trying to do the best with what the day throws at us. My role as a student was to learn from every staff member I came across, for the most part, I was learning from them how to behave when I reach the lofty heights of a qualified. Realistically though, there are lessons to be learned from those who are less than civil - primarily how not to behave. I learned valuable lessons around respect, attitude, and communication; I like to think that if a student had a similar experience as to what I had then they know they could speak to me, but it's situations like that which keep you humble.
May mercy be upon anyone who dares to speak to a student like that in front of me.
I was in my final year of training when Covid became what it was, and this placement was my re-deployment. In response to pressures that Covid had put upon the health board, I was employed as a band 4 for three months on a specialist ward. By the very nature of its specialism, many patients were immunocompromised. This was before the hope that was the vaccine was developed, and many people died.
I felt like I shone on this placement, it was rough, I probably saw more death in those three months that what I did the preceding two-and-a-half years, but one pushes through. Come the end of the three months, I sat down with my mentor for the final eval. This is where my mentor said the words:
"You're very confident."
She did not mean it as a compliment.
She recalled a time when I boldly walked up to a consultant and asked him if he was a doctor, before launching into whatever problem I had or prescription I needed. I don't remember the occasion, but apparently I left the consultant very affronted.
So, what's the lesson I can learn from this? I suppose it's remembering to be gentle in speech, it's difficult as a student to know who's who, which doctor's which, and how to tell a doctor from a visitor. I must remember sometimes to be a bit more tactful, approach the situation with more grace.. a tip I have learned actually, is when approaching someone unfamiliar, introduce yourself first. More often than not the other person will reciprocate, and if they don't - well you've just got close enough to have a subtle nose at their ID badge!