The emotional toll of nursing
Caring for patients with cancer on her first clinical placement taught nursing student Charlotte Milliken about the emotional resilience required to be a nurse
Caring for patients with cancer on her first clinical placement taught mental health nursing student Charlotte Milliken about the emotional resilience required to be a nurse
My first placement as a first-year mental health nursing student was on a surgical ward. I read the placement profile and felt I was as prepared as I could be, but being so new to nursing, I had not anticipated the emotions I would feel.
One of my first tasks was to remove surgical staples from a patient. I couldn’t get the final two out as they were set under a lump of dried blood, so my mentor took over. While watching him, my skin went cold then hot, and I felt dizzy as my whole world swam. I had never thought of myself as being squeamish but I was unprepared for the combined smell of the healing wound and the stoma bag.
Another patient with a cancer diagnosis had developed widespread metastases and had bilateral drains and a stoma. The surgical wound in her stomach deteriorated one night and faecal matter began to leak into the wound.
In the morning she asked my mentor when he would be able to make the pain and nausea stop. He said he didn’t know if he could, and as he left the room, she looked me in the eye and said that if they couldn’t she would kill herself, because she could not live like this.
Difficulties every day
My stomach dropped, and I reported this to my mentor who nodded knowingly. As we put on aprons and gloves to repack her wound, I told him I was struggling not to cry because it was so sad. He looked at me and said: ‘I deal with this every day. We don’t have time to cry.’ It hit home then just how much nurses have to cope with on a daily basis.
We went in to repack the patient’s wound, and as I held her abdominal apron in place, my mentor removed the old dressing and packing, soaked the new one and put it in. After we had finished, we resettled the patient.
After my mentor left the room, the patient opened her eyes and asked if I had seen anything like this before. I confessed I hadn’t, but told her how brave I thought she was – she had barely made a noise throughout what must have been a painful experience. She gave me a small smile and said: ‘That's good. At least all of this means you’re learning something.’
I smiled and squeezed her hand, but I still wanted to cry. She was going through so much and was thinking about me instead of herself. How incredible the human spirit is in the face of what others cannot imagine.
About the author
Charlotte Milliken is a first year nursing student at Abertay University in Dundee, Scotland