How a Bad Nurse Inspired Me

When I was 23, my grandmother was dying of lung cancer.

My Grandma H was one of the strongest women I ever knew. She ran her own business, was an active church member and helped found my home church in Missouri.

But she smoked. She and my grandfather smoked for decades. Everyone did.

Then my grandfather got cancer and she quit cold turkey. She still got cancer.

This woman also got Type 2 diabetes and changed her diet overnight.

My grandmother wasn’t perfect. She had a temper, she was set in her ways, and she was, at least, at one point, a racist. She kept her racism well hidden, and I only ever heard a racist comment from her shortly before her death when she was having a lot of problems. I don’t want to think of my grandmother as a racist, but I know it was there at some point. Still, she welcomed her black customers and was well thought of by the black community in my hometown, as I learned after her death. I’ll never know her true stance because my grandmother never taught me to be a racist. She kept her opinions to herself.

I was visiting my grandmother and she was in the hospital. She was dying of lung cancer and COPD. I was staying at my Grandma C’s house. It was quickly obvious that my grandma was dying, and I needed to be there as much as I could. My job at Charles Schwab refused to let me take time off, but I was fortunate to have a standing job offer from a previous employer. So I quit. I’ll never invest with Schwab. They claimed to be a family friendly company and refused me time off with the woman who practically raised me.

At this time I was also trying to decide which college to attend, and what to major in. I wanted a guaranteed job, I wanted to make a difference, and I wanted a living wage. I loved science, and was toying with the idea of being a nurse. I was currently working in customer service and tech support and hated it.

I was at my Grandma C’s house, in my pajamas, and got a call from the hospital. My grandmother was actively dying. I raced to the hospital to find my grandmother pale, her fingers blue, and barely coherent. No one was in the room with her. She begged me for help. I quickly tried to call for help and was told by the nurse “She’s dying.” My grandmother was in agony. I’d only seen her close to that once before, when she’d forgotten to turn her oxygen on. She was not being medicated for her shortness of breath or anxiety. She was literally sitting in a chair, gasping to stay alive. Yes, she was a DNR. This was my first lesson that some medical professionals consider that to be an order not to treat the patient.

In tech support, one of the first questions we always asked was “is it plugged in?” My grandmother’s oxygen was not plugged into the wall.

I called the nurse’s station again, desperate. No one came. I walked out to the nurse’s station to find the nurses sitting down and talking. I quickly asked for help to plug my grandmother’s oxygen back in.

A nurse marched down the hall with me, plugged the oxygen in the wall and said:

“You could have done this YOURSELF.”

Within minutes, my grandmother had her color back. She had her breath back, and she was thinking more clearly, although she never regained her sharpness of wit or memory after that moment.

As I sat there, holding her hand, feeling her desperately rubbing her thumb over mine, which she did to comfort me, but also to comfort her, I thought of that nurse, and I thought: “If that moron can do it, I can do it.”

I filed a complaint with the hospital and received an apology. I was reminded very shortly that my grandmother was dying. I didn’t really think of suing the hospital because I knew she was dying and I had already had a horrible experience with a false medical lawsuit filed by my mother. Litigation was the last thing on my mind. If that had happened today, I would raised hell. But back then, I was 23. I had no idea of a patient’s rights. I was alone in the hospital.

Nursing school was brutal. I worked full time through the entire thing, sometimes just sleeping 2-3 hours a day between classes and on breaks at work. I haven’t gotten to work in pediatrics. I work in surgery.

Every time I go into a patient’s room, from my first day as a tech and until the day I leave nursing, I check the patient’s color, respiration, effort, and whether or not their oxygen is plugged in. If they are on a tank, I bend over and check, every time. I’ve found other nurse’s patients with their oxygen off, cyanotic (blue), and averted a code. I monitor my medicated patients closely.

I’m not a perfect nurse. I screw up. I lack patience at times. I have compassion fatigue and I’m burned out from working a hard, physical job while coping with chronic illness and pain.

But when I had a dying patient, the other nurses covered my patients completely so I could stay with her. I held her hand and turned her toward the mountains, so that if she could see, the last thing she would see was beauty. When I talked to her son who was rushing to her side, I was able to truthfully tell him his mother did not die alone.

I have never told a family member to do anything by themselves. I will never treat a family member like they should have medical training. If my patient is in distress, I am in the room.

That nurse is probably still working. I never got her name. Her inaction made me a better nurse. I will never, ever, let myself become so fatigued, so burned out that I knowingly let a patient suffer while I sit at the station, talking. It’s just not the kind of nurse I’m ever going to be.

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About Grimalkin, RN

Trying really hard to be a decent person. Registered Nurse. Intersectional Feminism. Poet. Cat. Political. Original recipes. Original Stories. Occasionally Questionable Judgement. Creator of #cookingwithjoanne and #stopcock. Soulless Unwashed Carrot. This blog is dedicated to my grandmother, my beloved cat Grimalkin, and my patients.

Posted on July 18, 2013, in Family and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 14 Comments.

  1. Thank you for this. I’m so glad you wrote this out. I’m sorry for the experience but I forget sometimes that even nurses had bad nurse experiences and have learned from them. xoxo I love you!

  2. I love reading about all your nursing stories, as I am currently in school to be a nurse.

    Im so sorry that you and your grandmother had to have that kind of treatment while in a healthcare facility. Real life stories such as yours and your grandmothers, will always stay with me and help me become stronger in my studies and career, because I want to be the best nurse and person that I can be.

    I am so excited to be a person who prides themselves by being a kind and helpful individual who will always be there when a client, friend and family member need them.

    Thank you for being one of the kind nurses, unfortunately, you are way too outnumber with nurses who are solely there for the paycheque and not because they care for other people.

    Thanks again.

  3. Wonderful post, best story I’ve heard in quit some time with an valuable lesson for all of us caregivers 🙂

  4. It is true… there are those people in life who teach us what NOT to do.

  5. It’s so special that you have passed this story on to all us readers. I appreciate your honesty and the lesson you have learned. Those precious words will make many nurses stop and think, thank you so much.

  6. While I fully understand the pain of watching a loved one die, I also fully understand the pain of real nursing. I find it completely wrong and disgusting of you to call this nurse that you saw for a very short time a “bad nurse.” I am also glad that you stated what kind of nurse you are. Being a surgical nurse you may never understand the demand and stress of floor or unit nursing. While yes, your grandmother was “actively dying” that nurse may have had 6 or 7 other patients also “actively dying” that weren’t DNR. If you really entered this profession to make it better then I urge you move to an acute care floor or unit for a while. I would be willing to bet quite a lot that your song would change and you might actually one day have compassion for that “bad nurse” when you’ve walked in her shoes a while.

    • I work in the ICU, and I worked on a medical floor for years. Telling a patient’s family member that she should have plugged in the oxygen herself is inappropriate. I will let family members help with care, but only if I have explained things to them and I know for sure the person understands correctly. DNR does not mean do not treat. I’m sure we all have moments that families perceive us to be insensitive, however, it sounds like a significant episode of hypoxia. Another nurse might have spared her that experience by checking on the patient more frequently.

    • It’s HER blog, so it’s not for you to decide that her experience gave her an opinion that you deem disgusting. She didn’t say anything wrong. What is wrong with culture these days? If we curse at each other, no one takes anyone seriously. But if you don’t curse and instead state a blunt opinion that someone is behaving bad – people get all up in arms. You, however, are the one I worry about. I’m afraid I’ve had your type a couple times. Do you feel like this girl is competing with you? If you are a floor nurse and feel the need to do the bare minimum, seems you feel like your presence in nursing is doing the world a favor. Or I could be wrong and misjudging you off of just one rant – I hope your venting was just bc you had a bad day and isn’t a reflection of your everyday attitude. If you feel a need to get things off your chest you might want up start up your own blog. Clearly you come here for a reason bc of you both having nursing in common, so just enjoy what you like to read and just ignore the parts you don’t agree with. My mother in law tells me about your types that she works with, and I’m always appalled when I hear what type of people actually end up becoming nurses.

  7. I have looked after a lot of patients who are dying and like some of the other people above, you need to do pallative nursing or caring for DNR patients constantly and see the grieving relatives who will not let their dying relative pass in peace, sometimes it is shocking. Give a thought to the nurses who care for these patients…we do not only have one patient to care for like your grandmother, we usually have between 5-10 depending on our shifts and also some of these patients DO NOT have a DNR and if they get sick or sicker, we have to attend to their needs as well. I would like to know how the O2 was not connected if she was suppose to be on it..a little bit more information from a nursing perspective would have been nice instead of bagging out the nursing staff. Also with CA she most probably had brainy mets and so she would be deteriorating and not be as sharp as prior to the oxygen incident. I might sound sarcastic but we get this response from relative quite a lot – it may be a case of letting the relatives stay whilst we resuscitate a patient then maybe they may have a bit more compassion.

  8. Appalled by the lack of care your grandmother received. Yes, nursing is one of the hardest jobs out there. Nursing has changed so much since I graduated, not all for the good. However, there is a such thing a basic common sense that if you don’t have it, no amount of book smarts will make you a good nurse. None of us decided to do this because we anticipated becoming rich. What makes someone a great nurse? One who knows their limits, never hesitates to ask questions, always looking to improve, and learns from others. Those qualities translate into providing fantastic patient care.

  9. You said it yourself.you are not perfect.you screw up.so did that nurse.hopefu lly she learned something as well…

    • My coworker didn’t screw up. She was dealing with a lot of stress and pressure from family, friends, and work. She was tired. I helped her. She has helped me . In no way did she screw up.

  1. Pingback: How a Bad Nurse Inspired Me | Right Here In The Passenger Seat

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