Walking into my shift in the Surgical Trauma Burn Unit (STBU) at the University of Virginia Hospital that morning I had no idea what the day would bring. Some days are so busy that I barely have time for a quick lunch and a couple of bathroom breaks. But this day was different. It was the day that my first patient died in my arms. Working in the medical field, death is a real possibility and even though I have had patients die either on/off my shifts, this was the first time that my patient had died while I was holding her hand. As I sit here and reflect on some of the experiences I have had in my medical training up to this point, I am reminded of just how very fragile life is.
During high school, I decided to become a Hospice volunteer at our local hospital. One of my goals in life has always been to make a difference in the lives of others. My volunteer work with Hospice throughout high school was such a rewarding experience that I have recommended it to many people as a way to gain experience and empathy working with people in the medical field. My role as a Hospice volunteer was mainly to visit elderly patients and provide them with companionship in their last stages of life. All of my patients passed away during the time they were on my caseload, but I can honestly say that the memories and lessons learned are forever with me.
After all of my volunteer work in the medical field, I decided to make a career out of medicine. Last summer I worked as a CNA in a facility for residents with all stages of dementia. This job not only showed me how demanding, exhausting, and stressful a job in patient care can be, it also showed me how rewarding, inspiring, and meaningful it can be. Waking up at 5am five days a week over my summer break often led to complaining about how much I disliked my job. But once I made the thirty minute commute and clocked in, everything was made worthwhile as I began working with my first patient of the morning. Many people might consider the grunt work of a CNA to be beneath them. However, I think that these people are sadly mistaken. Not many people get to go to work every day and directly help people with tasks they are no longer capable of doing. Every day I was able to see the direct impact my job had on patients and that made every shift worth it.
Currently, I am in my third year of nursing school at the University of Virginia. I am taking a full load of nursing classes while working one 12-hour shift per week in the Surgical Trauma Burn Unit at the hospital. It is a physically and mentally exhausting schedule which I ABSOLUTELY love! I think that working in the hospital while taking nursing classes will be very beneficial both short and long-term. Short-term, it allows me to become comfortable providing care for patients. I have learned so much this past year about how to provide the best and most effective care possible while managing that care for up to 12 residents at a time. Long-term, working and taking classes allows me to see how a health-care team operates. During the past year I saw first-hand how doctors, nurses, LPN’s, and CNA’s interact with each other and with management. Seeing all of these different roles has allowed me to understand each and every position and their different responsibilities in the patient’s care.
Some of my shifts in the Surgical Trauma Burn Unit can be a little chaotic with car crash victims, burn patients, and accidental injuries. Then there was that one day recently where my sole task for the day was to sit at my patient’s bedside and provide support during her last hours of life. We all knew that death would be coming at any minute, and it was important to all of us on the medical team that our patient not die alone. I feel so fortunate to have been a part of my patient’s dying process and a comfort to her family when they arrived at the hospital after her death. Even though I knew death was certain for my patient on this day, when the time came it was still a sad feeling of letting go. As I sat there at her bedside quietly crying, I remembered what one of my nursing instructors had told me after a tough day on one of our clinical rotations. I can remember telling my instructor that I didn’t know if I would be a good nurse because I was so emotional and cried easily when hearing of patient’s struggles. This instructor pulled me aside and said, “Morgan, that is the exact reason that you will be an excellent nurse someday. You have empathy for people and you genuinely care about patients. That will show up in the way you interact with patients. Your patients will be lucky to have you as their nurse.” I have never forgotten these words as I have had many situations (especially over the past year) where I have been emotionally and physically tested. If I could give advice to those entering the medical field this is what I would say to them. Don’t be afraid to let your emotions out. It’s OK to cry, to get angry about the unfairness of a patient’s condition, to want to make everything better all the time. Being a sympathetic listener and sometimes just being there for your patient is all that they need. There have been many challenging days for myself – both physically and emotionally. But when I walk into a patient’s room and see the smile that lights up on their face, I know that what I’m doing is making a difference in their lives.