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Apr 20

A “best nurse” story: old school

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Those of us with more of our careers behind us than ahead of us carry with us something precious. We carry the stories of the nurses who inspired us to be better at our craft, those “best nurse I ever worked with” stories. One of my cherished stories is about Agnes (and yes, that is her real name, because I would be delighted if she recognized herself here). It was my first real nursing job, on a busy surgical unit, a unit with all RN staffing. When I joined the unit team, I was informed that I would be paired on a rotation with Agnes. At that time, jobs were plentiful, and there was a group of us ‘newbies’ with spotless shoes and crisp white uniforms, armed with the chafing certainty that only inexperience can bring. When I proudly told my colleagues of my assignment, their eyes widened with an odd mix of sympathy and fear. “Agnes….really? She’s so scary!”  I was to find out that many of the more seasoned staff on the unit felt the same way. Oh oh. What was I in for? Let me skip to the end of the story. Agnes was one of the best nurses I ever had the privilege to learn from. I would often hear someone at the desk, on one of those quieter evenings (yes, we had them back then), ask “where is Agnes?” The answer was often (and sometimes disdainfully) offered “oh..she’s probably in chatting with one of her patients”. Agnes made it her business to find out what mattered to patients, what was stressing them out, how their day was going, what they felt they needed to get well. Getting to know, really getting to know her patients often gave her insights into subtle changes in their status that others missed. Now, no one would describe Agnes as a “softie”. She was “old school”, and could be brusque and painfully direct—especially if she thought you had neglected to pay attention to what mattered: the patients (I think that’s why she scared so many people). I recall trying to tell her one time, years later, how much I had learned from her, and that working with her had made me a better nurse. She looked uncomfortable and waved her hand as if trying to brush off the compliment.  I don’t think that was an “awww shucks” moment of false modesty. I think it was because Agnes believed one thing with crystal clarity: it wasn’t about her. It was about the patients, and what they needed. Old school? Maybe. No long relevant? Not on your life!  

You have a little homework now. Read Margaret Wente’s short piece on her experience recently as a patient. Then, please, come back and make a comment, ask a question or share your own “best nurse” story.  And Agnes, thanks again.

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