Tales From the Trenches: Things I Learned From My Patients

Nurse and elderly man spending time together

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Nursing wasn’t my first profession choice – it was actually my fourth. I’d tried to write a book back in the day, but it only sold well for about 6 days. I got into at-risk youth counseling for awhile, but after getting the sh*t beat out of me one night, I was done with that. I took a job as a cook for awhile, but that didn’t really pay the mortgage.

So when I was offered the chance to become a nursing supervisor, I took the opportunity without a second thought. It’ll be easy to transition, I thought. Hahaha – was I ever wrong.

It didn’t take long for me to begin learning the lessons from the trenches. The very first door I opened got me splashed with a Dixie cup full of urine and feces. The patient yelled at me, “No one checked on me all night! Enjoy tasting my poop, you f*cking bastard!”

At least I bought my scrubs second-hand, I thought to myself. That didn’t change the fact that I smelled like Dixie cup awesomeness for the rest of my shift, even after changing my clothes. 

There was also an older lady that I’ll call “Jenny” here to respect her privacy. She suffered from dementia and paranoia, but also required extensive skin maintenance. Jenny also had a high level of intelligence behind that dementia. One day I came in to discover that she had managed to rekey the lock to her door from the inside so we, the alien overlord observers performing sexual experiments, couldn’t probe her any more. 

My facility was more about long-term care, assisted living, and recovery. It was a ranch-style, single floor extended unit, so I ended up having to remove the window to her room in order to give Jenny the care she needed. That’s right – she had also stripped out the bolts to the knob so we couldn’t just pop the door open AND glued the hinges shut. 

What did I get myself into? It was a common question I would ask myself, sometimes daily. 

In the Worst of Times, the Best of Times Can Still Be Found 

In my care was a veteran who fought in WWII, Korea, and Vietnam. He loved eating oatmeal for breakfast, but after that no one could get him to eat anything. It was one of those sad stories where his family didn’t come to visit him during his recovery and he’d had several setbacks during physical therapy. He was supposed to be there 90 days, but he’d been there a year with no practical end in sight. 

“Hey G,” a board member approached me one day, “We’ve tried everything. We can’t get this fellow to eat. Any ideas? Otherwise we’re going to have to stick a tube down his throat.” 

I decided that since he liked to tell war stories that it was time to revisit that type of discipline. I burst into his room bright and early. “On your feet, Gunnery Sergeant!” I ordered. “Your oatmeal is getting cold! Do you want to eat cold slop this morning or do you want it hot?” 

He looked at me curiously for a moment. I could see a fire begin to flicker behind his eyes. “Did I f*cking stutter, Gunnery Sergeant? Get your ass out of bed and get your breakfast! Move! Move!” 

And that’s how I addressed him from them on. “Time for your medication, Gunnery Sergeant.” “Move your leg, Gunnery Sergeant.” “Give me three more repetitions, Gunnery Sergeant.” 

I got written up for swearing at a patient, but it was worth it. On his way out the door, discharged after 60 days, he leaned in and whispered to me, “Go f*ck yourself. Thanks.” And that smile he flashed at me, just for a moment, showed me that the best of times can always be found, no matter how difficult life can be. 

The Accidental Treatment That Worked 

We had a fellow who was always a bit agitated. Suffering from some severe PTSD and a number of other physical ailments, this guy would yell at Bob Barker all the time when The Price Is Right was on. “There’s no f*cking way that’s $999, Bob!” he yelled as I walked into his room one day, and then I had to duck a snowglobe that got thrown at the TV.

In that moment, I got a bit flustered. I was there to distribute his medication, but I looked at the wrong page in the med book without realizing it. So I passed him the wrong medication – and it was my only ever med error. 

Once I got back to the desk, I realized what had happened and immediately contacted everyone. My heart was beating hard. Everyone else was like, “Hey. Don’t worry about it. This stuff happens all the time.” But it doesn’t happen to me. 

The attending physician arrived, assessed his condition, and was in there for what seemed like forever. Then he came out and asked for me. “Are you a physician? Do you have any medical training whatsoever?” The tone was serious. I was about to get my ass chewed.

I just stared the doctor down and set my jaw. Then the doctor laughed. “I’m just messing with you. The medication seems to be having a calming affect, so I think we’ll alter the patient’s treatment plan to include the medication you administered.”

I got a wink. “Well done, doctor. Don’t do it again.”

Life Keeps Going On

There was the time I hurt my back because a gate belt broke while moving a 300 pound wet naked woman from a shower to a wheelchair. Or the time I had to argue with a fellow who had suffered a cluster heart attack, but he didn’t want anyone to know because that might change the number of painkillers he got to take every day. Or the moment I had to do emergency CPR because a UTI caused a patient’s blood pressure to bottom out at 52/22 and she crashed almost right after I took the reading.

Through it all, I learned that life is precious and short. Each moment must be treasured. Be with your family and friends in those moments. Work hard. Do good. In doing so, we can create perfection in even some of our toughest times.

I’m sure you have some fantastic tales from the trenches too, please share your hard work and funny stories in the comments below.

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