It’s hard to believe it was only just over a year ago that I went from cushy and clean office jobs to the messy manual labor of patient care in order to get some experience as I become a nurse.
There have been many moments when I wondered what the hell I was thinking – like the first time I emptied a colostomy bag (literally a small bag of poop that comes directly out of a patient’s abdomen).
Or the time I was helping a patient use the bedside commode and the bucket base that serves as the toilet fell to the ground, spilling about a gallon of urine all over the floor.
Or the many times I forced myself to keep smiling instead of gritting my teeth as a patient yelled at me because I wasn’t wiping their butt correctly.
In these moments I’ve wondered why in the world I would ever have made such a change. I’ve imagined myself floating up above the situation, looking down and just laughing at myself.
Ha! You wanted to be a nurse?! Did you ever think you would literally be cleaning up shit for a living? You’re a professional butt wiper! And even though people like to talk about how much money nurses make, your first-year base salary in employee benefits consulting was more than your annual salary will be – in three years – once you become a nurse! And people get paid more than you’re making now to work at Salad and Go or Chick Fil A! What were you thinking??
But that man with the colostomy bag? The one they told me was a grumpy, nasty jerk? He was so gracious with me, calmly instructing me on how to empty it, and ensuring we didn’t get poop all over. He had been doing this for years, after all. Can you imagine that? Having to empty out your own poop from a bag attached to your belly? You might be a little grumpy too.
I smiled and joked with him even as I helped with this unfathomable task. I had already learned how to breathe out of my mouth so I didn’t smell all the smells.
And once we were done and had cleaned up, I lifted the clear graduated container that held the excrement up to my eye level, noting its volume in order to chart it for the nurse. The patient muttered something about the color being darker than usual, almost black. Hmm, I said, not thinking much of it. I tucked him in, emptied the container into the toilet, rinsed it out and set it in the bathroom for next time. I turned off the light, left the room and went to the computer at my workstation to chart the output, remembering to note the blackish color.
A little later as the nurse reviewed his chart, she asked me to comment more precisely on the color of his poop, and as I was trying to describe the exact color, I remembered from nursing school that feces often looked black when it contained blood. In that moment, I also recalled that when I checked his vitals a few minutes earlier, his blood pressure had been pretty low and his heart rate had been pretty high.
It turns out this man was bleeding internally! And it was his poop that was the first indicator. And if I hadn’t done my job so thoroughly, if I hadn’t taken the time to note the color of his poop, he might have died. No wonder he was grumpy! That was the moment I realized that it was worth it. That this was important work. That my job mattered.
The lady with the spilled urine was also a difficult patient. She was suffering from an unexplained partial paralysis that seemed to be psychosomatic and pretty inconsistent (i.e most of the nurses thought she was faking it), but I calmly transferred her from bed to commode each time she had to go (which was many in that 12-hour shift). She watched as I calmly sopped up the pee with towels and lovingly cleaned her up and got her back in bed with a smile.
“You are the only one who has been nice to me,” she said. “You are so patient and kind, even in this embarrassing and messy situation. You are going to be a wonderful nurse. Thank you.”
And the people who yell at the way I wipe their butt? Well, I know that they are just in pain – physical, mental, emotional or all of the above. Sometimes they apologize later and sometimes they don’t.
And I decide, again and again, that my job as a nursing assistant, though it looks different in practice, is in theory the same as any other job I’ve ever been good at.
Whether I’m writing stories, singing songs, helping people buy and sell homes or insurance, raising kids or cleaning up messes, my job is to help, serve, comfort, encourage and inspire the people with whom I come into contact. I don’t always do it well. But my goal is to leave people feeling better than they did before our encounter.
I have taken care of hospital patients recovering from surgery or suffering from heart failure or stroke, hospice patients on palliative and comfort care only, moms and babies in Labor & Delivery, patients suffering from Covid-19 and schizophrenic patients with aggressive behaviors.
I have worked for two of the major hospital systems in my county, and even took a short-term travel CNA assignment at a behavioral health facility this summer as I geared up for “Block 1” of nursing school to start in late August. It paid three times more than my regular fulltime gig at the hospital and opened my eyes to so much – I learned about travel nursing, nursing home administration, behavioral health and taking care of psych patients – and I continued my lifelong study of people, love and life.
A friend of mine said recently that she chooses to think of her job as a nursing assistant as a sort of paid internship. And I think that’s the best reason to do this kind of work. There are definitely better ways to make a living – even during a pandemic. But I have learned and experienced so many lessons about nursing in such a short time. Lessons that you just can’t get from a classroom. Experiences of a lifetime. I’m also showing my kids that we can do hard things, and that there is value in good old- fashioned hard work, even though there are new ways to serve the world and make a living.
Nursing will never be the only thing I do. I will always also be a singer, a writer, a coach, a consultant, or whatever else I decide to become. I still believe the words my mom instilled in me as a child – that I can do anything I set my mind on.
But whatever I do, wherever I go, I will always try to make people feel just a little better than they did before. I won’t always succeed. Sometimes I’ll rub people the wrong way. I won’t be for everyone, and that’s OK. I will keep on smiling, even under a mask that makes my chin break out like a teenager’s.