What I learned after 45 years of nursing

The column below is from Karen Pitman, a DSHS nurse who is retiring this month.

One of the best things about May is that it is the month set aside to honor nurses. According to the latest annual Gallup rating of various professions, nurses lead the nation in ratings for honesty and ethics for the 20th consecutive year. Why is this? I believe that it’s because we treat our patients like we would want a nurse to treat our family.

After 45 years of being a nurse, I can honestly look back and say that nursing has always been my plan A. I can’t remember a time of not wanting to be a nurse. In high school, I took an elective to work in the health room — the school nurse was my hero — and I volunteered as a candy striper. Early in my career as a nurse I started working in the emergency department and, at the time, thought this is where I would continue to work my entire career. But life happens and plans change.

When my daughter was born, I switched to employee health for a better life balance, which led me into infection prevention. At that time, we were right at the beginning of treating HIV cases. We didn’t even have safety needles or needle boxes, and I got to be a part of that culture change in getting needle boxes at bedsides and teaching about bloodborne pathogens. From then on (with the exception of a short stint as a school nurse), I worked in infection prevention/employee health, to include through the H1N1 and Ebola scares. Eventually, I took a position at Western State Hospital as the director of infection prevention; while there, the COVID-19 pandemic began. I’ve always enjoyed the aspects of infection control that include researching and solving challenges, autonomy, and using my expertise.

In general, my career as a nurse has taught me a lot about medicine, human nature, leadership and kindness. I’d like to share a few of those thoughts with you. While I don’t pretend to have all of the answers, I have seen and experienced a lot.

For those who are in small fields like infection prevention, you may find yourself the only person in your field in a facility. My advice to you is to network, network, and network. Find your peers and share with them your challenges and your planned courses of action. Connect to professional organizations. It’s still important to do your own research, but consulting with your peers can be immeasurably valuable.

To new nurses in general, I would encourage you to find mentors who you trust. I remember working at a hospital as a nurse leader, when one day while rounding I met a new nurse whose hands were literally shaking because she was so afraid of doing something wrong. She needed help with time management especially. I encouraged her, as I would with all new nurses, to find a mentor for at least the first year to vent to and to ask advice from.

For mid-career nurses, I would encourage you to trust your gut instinct. If you feel something is off with a patient, don’t be afraid to move that concern forward. My other piece of advice for more seasoned nurses is to be on the lookout for burnout. I once saw a nurse in an ER be very callous with a young mother. The nurse was clinically skilled, but lost some of her compassion when this mother with two kids in tow didn’t follow the rules at the time of getting a Medicaid clearance to go to the ER. The nurse berated the mother, who was just trying to get care for her child. Now I can see that the nurse was burned out, and that she probably didn’t realize it (which can be all too common).

I have been a nurse for 45 years and have never regretted it. I have learned a lot about compassion, empathy, leadership and team building. I have learned that being a patient advocate is one of the greatest gifts I have been given in my life.

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