Why I became a mental health nurse

The first eighteen months of our uni course included general nursing and students, along with the aforementioned pushers and shovers, made a mad dash for the announcement boards to see where we’d be placed for the next eight weeks. I got ‘Gynaecology & Urology’. This was back in the day when we still had mixed wards, which was shocking and probably embarrassing for the mainly females, due to the nature of the ward.

I was so excited that ridiculously early Monday morning, in my new blue and white striped uniform with my upside down watch and the obligatory shiny new black DM’s. The nurses were all welcoming and there was a nice friendly male nursing assistant, Phil, in his mid thirties, who was to show me around the ward.

Phil was a bit on the cheeky side and seemed to have a good relationships with both the nurses and the patients. Nevertheless, he was lazy and would habitually try to fob menial and yukky tasks onto gullible students like me. I quickly let him know that while I don’t mind sharing the load, I was also a mature student who needed to learn certain nursing skills as well as carry out his nursing assistant tasks.

A few weeks in, Phil was grinning when told me to remove a catheter from a male patient and that he’d be back in five minute to check. On his return I told him I’d completed the task and with eyes agog, mouth agape, he paled immediately, thinking that I’d followed his instructions. As students, we all knew, you didn’t carry out such tasks on your own if you’ve never done it before – so I didn’t. Having never carried out this procedure, how would I know you had to deflate the balloon before you removed the tube from the penis?

While we were in lectures at uni, we’d learned about all the different types of poo. There’s no such thing as a perfect poo – it comes in all shapes and sizes, colours and textures. The most surprising was fecal vomiting which was one type we were told, we’d probably never come across during our mental health nursing. Fecal vomiting is serious and can happen when a person has an obstruction (usually in the small bowels).

Anna was only forty-six and had both colon and bowel cancer which had now spread to the lymph nodes and she wasn’t expected to recover. She’d called me, looking very embarrassed, asking for the commode and as she was so weak, I had to help her onto it.

No sooner had Anna sat down, she requested the sick bowl sitting nearby. Too late, she furiously projectile vomited, propelling runny poo all over the bed and down her clothes. She was mortified and kept apologising as I stood behind her rubbing her back and saying “it’s okay, not to worry. You’re okay Sweetheart” while my eyes and nostrils were stinging and I was gagging silently. I really felt for Anna, I did. My heart so went out to her and I burst into tears. I was annoyed with myself for feeling so ‘icky’ about it all.

Although urology and gynae was mostly ‘icky’, fecal vomit was definitely the worst. Yet I still feel somewhat privileged to have been able to support a patient in some small way, during probably one of the worst times in her life.

I was sad to leave this placement because the staff were so lovely, always including me in their daily chats, sharing all the chocolates and laughing at me when they saw me heave at the sight of bodily fluids. General nursing definitely wasn’t for me!

However, I’d learned how to make hospital beds, empty bedpans and clean up shit as well as making gallons of coffee whilst at the same time, remembering to document patient care in their notes, to be signed off by qualified staff.

My shiny new dm’s were tested to their limits, having ran around the wards thousands of times, at breakneck speeds. My lovely blue and white uniform got tighter as I enjoyed the sweets and chocolates gifted by patients and the daily homemade cakes I’d taken in, to ‘bribe the nurses into liking me’. My upside down watch was used often, probably more often than normal I suppose, because I had to keep re-doing BP, pulse and resps – to ensure they were correct. I was terrified I’d make a mistake and someone would die because of me, in fact, I had nightmares!

I didn’t realise how much I’d miss the patients and the relationships we built during such a short period and the times we’d laughed and cried together. I felt so humbled by this experience, when these lovely people, despite their illness, pain or suffering, shared with me their life stories and their innermost fears and secrets, some of which they’ve never been able to talk about.

Note to self: “Listen to that inner voice of yours. It’s not you, but it’s for you.”
― Kiyo Giaozhi