For many adolescents, including myself, swimming lessons were part of my after-school schedule. My parents were vigilant to keep both my sister and I swimming at high levels, to ease their concerns, as we spent the entirety of the summer alongside docks, swimming white water rapids, and spending the day in canoes in the lakes of Ontario, Canada. As these swimming lessons advanced, they eventually lead to Basic Life Support skills, where I learned to check for “fire, wire, gas and glass” before approaching a victim, manoeuvred spinal water rescues, and was introduced to CPR.
As my summer outdoor adventures began to get more ambitious, I found myself on a three-week canoe trip, travelling a river in Manitoba called the Blood-vein. We were five terrified 14-year-old campers, entrusting our lives to 18-year-old camp leaders, intimidated to experience the rugged and remote wilderness that the river had to offer. We quickly became a closely knit group; we battled bugs that would lead those who are faint at heart to insanity; completed kilo meters of portaging gear with accomplished, muddy grins; and let societal standards of bodies slide as we leaned into the bug-bitten, sun-kissed, strong paddlers that we were becoming. Near the end of the trip, we were met with our first cool breeze, a welcome reprieve from the intensity of a Manitoban summer sun. This breeze brought high winds, purple clouds, and a storm like no other. As we frantically searched for a “crash site” to take cover, we struggled to gain traction up the muddy clay riverbank, eventually emerging from the river with red clay coating our gear, boats, and three-quarters of our bodies. Assigned with the task of setting up a tent to create shelter, we dodged falling trees and scrambled to create a fragile shelter of safety.
Upon return to the boats, after our job was complete, we were confused to see one of our camp leaders pulling out the satellite phone. She explained that our second camp leader had been struck by lightning while pulling gear out of the water. She was calling for help. To keep this in perspective, remote Manitoba is no easy feat to gain access to; helicopter access was the only option, and even helicopter assistance was hours away. We carried her to the tent, she was pale, with an appearance best described as “askew”, and acted confused. One problem, amongst the many within this scenario, was the fact that she was our only leader with certifiable Basic Life Support. It was here, that us 14-year-old campers, began to lean on our mild knowledge through swimming lessons, of Basic Life Support, to treat our camp leader for shock, assess her level of consciousness, and wait until help would arrive. All members of the canoe trip survived without major injuries, and we all went our separate ways after a long debrief and tearful goodbye. But there are many lessons in this trip that still ring true, years later, when I enter the hospital as a student nurse.
When one is left responsible for another’s life, there is a heavy weight that one carries. The shock and sense of freeze that I felt when the lighting struck, I also feel each time a patient before me is in a significant health crisis. What if I forget a key assessment? What if I don’t remember what to do when the time to act comes? Is this within my scope of practice? These thoughts paralyzed me and caused me to freeze when a response to care was necessary.
Moreover, the result of a powerful storm leaves an overwhelming intensity of emotions in its wake, which runs parallel to leaving a particularly intense shift at work. Consider what happens when the shift ends, go home, and think, “Did I start that IV or leave it clamped?”, “Did I remember to give their last dose at 1400?”, “Did I document the wound dressing change?” The shift does not end when I go home. I carry the responsibility of these lives even once the patient is handed over and I have showered off the day in attempt to leave the shift behind.
These are struggles I continue to have today. However, I have found habits and techniques that have helped. The team of preceptors, mentors and fellow nurses create an accountable, resourceful center of knowledge and comfort as these difficulties arise. Similar to when we, as paddlers, bonded amidst the chaos of a canoe trip, I have learned to rely on fellow nurses as a touchstone for reassurance and learning. Slowly, the more I discussed and gained experience the quicker I could respond in the face of adversity, and the situations became less paralyzing.
Another helpful habit I learned from an instructor, was to take note of knowledge gaps throughout the shift to research later. This meant that at the end of the shift, I would often have a page of prompts to research various diseases, protocols, or treatment plans. Once researching, I felt a step more prepared to re-enter the hospital than the day before. My mind eased when I knew that given the resources that I had access to, I could put effort into becoming more knowledgeable for my patients.
As I further my nursing career, I am in awe of the seasoned nurses who run each unit, as they continue to be an inspiring assembly of people. The ability to save lives and give competent care, while maintain a work-life balance as many nurses do, remains a mystery to me. I was a timid 14-year-old paddler at one point, and I carry many of the same doubts and hesitations as I did when I came face-to-face with my first patient years ago; but now I have the inspiration of the nurses surrounding me daily, to exemplify skills and a career to be proud of.