One year of my nursing journey has somehow already passed, and unsurprisingly, the last three weeks have been the most significant thus far. My first clinical placement experience was an important milestone – I needed to test my strengths and weaknesses and bring all of the knowledge taken in throughout the year into the real world. Just how real it was is where the experience became a critical one.
There were many moments over the three weeks that will remain in my mind as I reflect on my interactions, but three moments in particular had what I feel will be a lasting impact. As in all accounts of a medical and personal nature, no real names are used in these stories that follow.
In the days leading up to the start of my clinical placement, I was thinking about the challenges that lay ahead. One challenge that I knew I would be tested on was my ability to separate the emotional attachment from the task of caring for a person in need. Little did I know that this test would present itself in the very first week.
We were each assigned one resident to assist, and it would be a “simple” resident for now – one that did not require a high level of care with their daily activities (or ADLs, Activities of Daily Living, as we like to call it). I was assigned a friendly but reserved gentleman, who just one month on from his 94th birthday, had found himself admitted into residential care due to a complication with his eye sight after suffering a three-month pneumonia battle. He was otherwise mobile and independent, even though he used a walking aide. I only needed to assist with the trickier parts of a shower, and keeping an eye on a sore he had on one of his toes. Otherwise, I found my main assistance to him was just being there for a chat and we had a rapport right from the start. He was still processing the fact that he was now a resident in a care facility, something that was both unexpected and a little uncomfortable for him. It was the little things that were making a big difference to his transition, such as the lack of honey that was available at breakfast time for his toast (and of course, I set about trying to stash some honey away for him once I learned this).
After the second day, he said we made a good team, and that gave me a sense of satisfaction I’ve rarely felt in any work I’ve ever done. I was genuinely enjoying our chats – learning about his history as a merchant shipper, and the many fascinating places he had sailed to. I learned about his wife, who had passed two years earlier, and of the way he would spend his time down at the local stores with his neighbours. He told me of his three daughters and how proud he was of them. I had the pleasure of meeting one of them and I could see why he was a proud father.
Then, on the Friday, I knocked on his door as I always did and entered his room. I saw him sitting on his bed, quietly staring out the window, with all of his belongings packed beside him. This startled me, and it was almost like he read my reaction, as he started to tell me what was happening before I even had a chance to ask. He was being transferred to another facility, as this was only supposed to be for respite care. He wasn’t sure when he was leaving, but I said I would be there to say a proper goodbye. I thanked him for the opportunity to assist him and I told him how much I enjoyed our very brief time together learning about his story. I had some other tasks to attend to and then went back to his room about an hour later.
The room was empty. My heart sank. My throat felt heavy. He was gone and I wasn’t there like I said I would be. I instantly felt like I had let him down and I was so disappointed in myself.
I went back to our meeting room that we used to debrief and told my educator and fellow placement buddies what had just happened. My educator had a look on her face, almost like she knew this was coming. I had mentioned to her at the start of placement that I thought I might struggle with the emotional side of things and here we were – on day five, already facing this test. But they rallied around me (something that I hope will continue to happen throughout my nursing journey) and reminded me of the reality of the situation – yes, I said I would be there to say goodbye, but this isn’t always possible. I was there when he needed me throughout the week, and then he needed to move to his next phase. I suggested that I would go visit him in his new facility, to say a proper goodbye, but my educator stepped up again: “Are you doing this for him, or are you doing this for you?” It was a powerful question, one that instantly highlighted to me that I had become too emotionally attached to the first resident I interacted with and proved this would be a real challenge for me to work on. People in need will come and go and I won’t always be there to say goodbye – things will rarely be that perfect or organised. There is a fine line between being the empathetic, caring nurse and the nurse that doesn’t protect themselves emotionally. I was already too close to this line and I had to back away.
Parts II and III to follow.