I believe one of the most challenging things about being in nursing school is how little anyone can relate to you besides nurses and other nursing students. The moment nursing school begins, you’re plunged headfirst into a world—an education system—extremely different from any you have ever experienced before. Some of the differences are subtle, others outstanding; they compound to mold you and change the way you view yourself. Before, classes were gen-eds. The most set-apart were the sciences, but you were still among various majors. Aside from college acceptance and a passing grade in any pre-required class, there was nothing weeding people out of your classes; the levels of academic fervour amongst the students were significantly varied. However, when you look at the faces around you in nursing school, you know that each and every one of those people earned his/her seat, just like you did. They had to have gotten good grades and a good TEAS score to make it into a program this competitive. You’re looking at fellow “top of the class” students, so there’s nothing particularly special about you anymore. Unless you’re completely consumed with your grades and very forthright about your vigor for the class (there are those students), you’re just another good student working hard to do well. Yes, a hierarchy develops; not everyone is on the same plane. As I said, you still have your go-hard grade-obsessors (you can refuse to believe me, but I am not amongst them), and there are those who are barely scraping it out. But the middle class is vast and is made up of those who were likely once viewed as “top-notch” students. Everyone in the class is smart, though not all in the same way. You never realize how much you were accustomed to being the top of the class until you’re just another number in the middle.
Then there’s the fact that nursing abilities are not the same as academic abilities. Yes, you need to be strong intellectually to be able to do nursing, but test grades coming easily is no indication that nursing skills will. It does not help that I did not grow up around any nurses, nor have I nor any of my family members ever been hospitalized for any substantial amount of time (at least, not during my lifetime). Because of this, I often feel as if I might as well be illiterate. Nursing uses a language of acronyms, multi-syllable words, and medication names, both generic and trade. Having taken Medical Terminology at CCC (thank goodness!), I’m decent with terms that use the Latin word parts, but these people speak letters and abbreviations and drug names. And they expect you to be familiar with them, especially since a good chunk of the class is. I’m in class with CNAs, EMTs, LPNs, etc. who hear this stuff every day. The instructors insist that this does not give them an advantage, because they probably picked up bad (lazy) habits that they’ll have to break while in school. But at least they can understand what is being said at the front of the classroom. And it seems like, if you’re not already in healthcare, then you probably chose nursing because you sat at your loved one’s side in the hospital for a year and absorbed everything via osmosis. I’m about as clueless as new nursing students come, and I’m not quick to pick things up.
It’s hard, knowing that so many have great expectations for me. I’ve always been this “A” student that loved science and just got it; when I said I was going into nursing, first reactions were always, “Wow! What a great field! You’re going to be a great nurse!” It was encouraging.
But nursing school is not encouraging, and it steals the encouragement out of others’ statements.
Because, suddenly, I don’t just get it. I panic through my drug calculations. I fumble through tasks and end up squirting water over my entire sterile field. I go to school, smile and nod, pretending that I understand the stories people tell me about the drug or surgery or whatever so-and-so had. I go through lab, desperately trying to catch on and complete my skill before moving on to the next one (I often don’t succeed). I often go home feeling defeated, unworthy, and embarrassed. When I go somewhere that’s not school, I am asked how school is going: cue the conflict of deciding whether or not to sugar coat and bend the truth to prevent discomfort for both parties or to just state the painful fact that school is hard, and I’m discouraged. I usually settle somewhere in the middle, and people tell me that they’re sure I’m doing great and am going to do so well. I seem ungrateful and rude, I know, but you have to understand that those comments don’t help in the way they were intended to. Because, all the while, I’m thinking, “how can you know that?” How can they know how good or bad I am at placing a Foley catheter or assessing my patient or doing vital signs? They can’t. It makes me feel lonely and misunderstood.
Growing up, my mom (and other teachers) would always say to ask questions, because if you’re wondering it, odds are another student is too. If you feel lost, you’re probably not the only one. But being placed somewhere where you feel like the minority, you get that false idea that you’re the only one who’s lost. The only one who didn’t understand. The only one who sobbed at clinical. So you keep it to yourself so people don’t think you’re incapable. The problem is, lots of us get lost. Lots of us don’t understand. And I know I’m not the only one who cried at clinical.
The girl I ate lunch with one day—she cried at clinical as well.
That guy who works at a hospital and is good at it—he struggled with his shift assessment too.
Goodness, someone even threw up!
Yes, I’ve had at least three category 5 meltdowns—two that my mother is aware of. My mom told a nurse she knows about them, and the nurse’s response was “Only two!?!”
Anyone who has ever heard about nursing school is familiar with the infamous nursing school meltdowns, but I don’t think they really understand what they entail. They’re not your run-of-the-mill stressed out meltdowns: the ones when you’re tired and cranky and just want a good long nap. They’re more than that—at least, mine are. They involve the deepest levels of self-doubt.
What if I fail? What if I keep going, and my incompetency hurts someone? What if I ruin—or end—someone’s life? What if I have wasted all these hours, all this money, on this childish dream that I could accomplish something so great—so heroic? What was I thinking? I’m going to be a disappointment. An embarrassment.
It takes a nurse looking at me with sympathy and strength, telling me that “You’ll get it; it comes with time,” or another student’s confession that she was terrified as well, to remind me that, just because everyone looks put together, doesn’t mean that they always are. And just because it doesn’t come as easily or quickly for me as it does for some other people, doesn’t mean it’ll never come.
I didn’t write all this to pout. I didn’t write all this to gain pity (please, anything but pity!). And please know, to all who have given me encouragement, I don’t want to make you feel bad about trying to encourage me. I sincerely understand and appreciate your intent. Why did I write this, then? Part of me is asking myself that same question right now—like I usually do when I write a blog post (you might be surprised at how many posts get started and/or completed, yet sit unread in my documents). I think I wrote this, because I know I would like to hear a fellow nursing student admit these things. It’s comforting to know that you’re not the only one who doesn’t have it all together. Who wonders if she made a mistake. Who has to summon every inch of her will to bolster up a smidge of confidence. Who even chants, “I will not drop out of nursing school. I will not drop out of nursing school,” on her way in, some days. Who is mastering the art of carrying on a conversation in which she doesn’t understand 10% of what the other person is saying.
Maybe I am the only one who feels like this. If so, I guess this will be an embarrassing post. But what if I’m not? What if there’s another aspiring nurse out there that has hit his low point and just needs to know that he is not alone? Who knows, deep in his gut, that he will get there; he just needs someone who actually understands how he feels to be honest about it.
Yes… I guess that’s why I’m writing this.
And if nursing school has taught me anything, it’s that we all go through it differently. No one’s experiences are the same as another’s. And that’s okay.