Keep Your Merit Badge, I’m Not a Boy Scout

Portrait of Miss Georgina Pope, head nurse of ...

Portrait of Miss Georgina Pope, head nurse of First Canadian Contingent during the Boer war. Possibly in her nurse’s uniform from Bellevue Hospital, New York (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Last week Nurse K posted on her blog about a patient‘s last phone call. Read it here.

After wiping away some stray moisture from my eyes and clearing my nose (allergy season, you know), I thought about the moments that define us in our healthcare role.

Hospitals seek out touching stories to bolster their application for Magnet status or adorn their website. Their stories of how the healthcare staff went above and beyond to help a patient usually end up being fairly run of the mill. More in the vein of “the nurse took the time to ensure I knew how to make the bed go up and down” and “the food service staff cheerfully exchanged my tray to accommodate my gluten-free diet” than “someone did something totally unexpected and above/below their pay grade that mattered.” In my hospital experience of being on the receiving end of management’s praise, I’ve found the successes I’ve been credited with are the ones that least define who I am as a nurse.

I was acknowledged once for my help in cleaning up flooded exam rooms after someone left a faucet running over a weekend. The sad truth was administration had made deep cuts in the housekeeping department and there was no one available to clean up the mess. I picked up a mop and started in because we had a waiting room of patients to be seen. Eventually the housekeeping supervisor, embarrassed at his lack of employees, showed up to help. Administration congratulated our team effort to fix the problem. I got official recognition for going above and beyond and a free lunch in the cafeteria. Rather than being thrilled with the “honor,” I was incensed. Of all of the things I did in my job that were truly worthy of recognition, I got an attaboy for pushing a mop for two hours. Two hours I wasn’t available to triage or educate patients. Two hours I didn’t use any of my nursing skills. That is what administration deemed worthy of recognition.  It didn’t go over well when I told them instead of praising me, they should be asking themselves why they didn’t have enough housekeeping staff to handle emergencies.

Instead of addressing the underlying problem many of us face, too much to do with too little time and staff to do it, hospitals try to boost morale with meaningless honors and remain oblivious to the day-to-day things that really matter. And though we are more than willing to share our crazy stories, commiserate over the sad ones, and bemoan the incompetence of administration, we’re not willing to let down the walls and talk about the parts of our job that hit us in the gut and the situations that make us turn our heads so the patient can’t see our tears. We’re professionals. That stuff isn’t supposed to get to us.

But, it does. It stays with us.

And they are the moments I don’t offer up to the public relations machine of the hospital and I suspect many others do the same. Moments that remind us there is more to our job than tasks and checklists and documentation. Moments when we know that our lives will go on, but our patient’s will be changed forever. Because sometimes, in the confusion, turmoil and noise of our professional lives, we take a step back and do the right thing.

Those are the moments that define us.

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