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At age 16, I was two weeks into my job as a Nurse’s Aide at XYZ Retirement Center, I’d gone through much of the preliminary training (having volunteered there for several years prior, and knowing the general ins and outs of the staff’s daily routine), and was working my first solo evening shift. I already had a good rapport with many of the residents, and everything had gone smoothly during training, so I was feeling fairly confident. One of my jobs was to bathe the elderly residents who were unable to bathe themselves. This involved transporting them to a special facility in the Center, with a whirlpool bath and a chair that raised them up from the ground and down into the tub. George, the elderly gentleman I was bathing, was mostly quiet, and I was able to get him into the tub and cleaned with relative ease. After the bath, he was in the lift chair outside of the tub and I was drying him off before putting him in his robe to wheel him back to his room. He muttered something quietly. As I was asking him to repeat himself, he had an accident, expelling a significant amount of solid waste onto the floor and chair. I quickly reassured him, got him cleaned up as best I could in the moment, put his robe on him, and helped him into the toilet, doing my best to keep a calm exterior. Inside, however, I felt awful and questioned whether or not I was able to handle this situation, let alone the job.

As he was in the toilet, I called for assistance in cleaning up the floor and getting him safely back to his room. My hands were shaking, and I didn't know what to do. After a minute, George called to be helped out of the toilet, and I brought his wheelchair over and took him into the hall, so he didn't have to go back into the tub room, which still needed cleaning up. He was so upset and embarrassed, but I wanted to be sure that he knew that I understood this was out of his control, and that I was in no way upset with him or having any negative feelings at all toward him. Inside, all I felt was bewilderment - I felt so bad for him, but I didn't feel like I had the tools to handle this. Still, I got to eye level with him, put a hand on his shoulder, and looked him in the eyes. There were tears running down his face, and I put every ounce of compassion I had into my voice and said, "George, please listen to me. This was not your fault. This was an accident, and I understand that it is upsetting. It's okay to be upset. But I want you to know that no one is judging you. This is just something that happens sometimes, and there was nothing you could do to avoid it." Once he was safely on his way back to his room, I went into the bathroom and wept. I questioned myself and my own abilities, and I repeated every moment of the incident to myself, trying to see if there was anything I could have done to prevent this. I couldn't believe I'd maintained any composure at all, but even with that, I felt like I had failed him. I thought that there had to be something more I could have said or done.

This was a very difficult situation, and I was still quite young at this time - this would be a difficult situation for anyone, let alone a teenager with no life experience to prepare for such an event. I spoke with my colleagues and my mother, who is a nurse herself, about my self-doubt. They were all very sympathetic and helped me understand that things like this really do just happen sometimes. There really was nothing I could have done to avoid this, just as there was nothing George could have done. Even if I'd heard what he said the first time - presumably that he wasn't feeling well or needed to use the restroom - I wouldn't have been able to get him to the toilet in time, as mere seconds had passed. I'd used every tool at my disposal to keep a calm exterior while the resident was with me, and called on others to help when I felt out of my depth. Through this experience, I learned that I know when to call on my colleagues for support, and that I can at least project calm when my mind is racing. As well, they remarked on my maturity – many grown adults, let alone teenage kids, would have had a very different and unfortunate reaction to a situation like this. I was still able to prioritize the resident’s dignity in a situation where he was very exposed and vulnerable.

I came to understand that if I could get through this, I could get through any number of complicated and delicate situations. The world of medicine is not always tidy, and patients are frequently very vulnerable. Having a nurse who has experienced such things (and at such an early stage in their career), who can acknowledge that accidents like this are in no one’s control, and who can take a calm and pragmatic approach while making every effort to maintain the patient’s dignity, is incredibly important. Looking back now, I’m glad I had that experience, as difficult as it was. It showed me a side of myself I didn’t know existed.

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