Sunday, November 13, 2016

The Things That Medical School Won't Teach You (2) - Don't mess with the nurses!

This has basically been one very crazy week; a crazy year for that matter: first we had Brexit, and now...well I don't even know what to call that little stunner that our American compadres just pulled on us (Amexit hardly seems adequate). Oh well, if frustration voting is the current wave, I'm hoping it persists until next year so we can get some real change down here in Kenya.

But I digress; as an addition to my medical school series, on this occasion I'm highlighting a topic that's on a different end of the spectrum than my usual fare. So without further ado, another rule of thumb for the wise clinician: Don't mess with the nurses!

Whenever I've highlighted my experiences, they typically focus on the doctors; that's mostly due to convenience because trying to encompass everyone and the skill sets involved would make for much longer posts. If you happen to spend anytime near any sort of health facility, however, you would quickly come to the realization that most of your time is spent in the company of nurses, the true unsung heroes of the medical world.

From a lot of my posts, and a myriad of others floating freely online, you can understand that the life of a medical doctor is no mere cake walk. However, nursing is on an even grander scale of difficult. I would estimate that as much as 70 - 75% of all the strict medical work taking place at a hospital is carried out by the nurses. Nurses are so essential that - as I've experienced in Kenya - to get any sort of decent medical strike going, you need the nurses' muscle to weigh in on the matter. You can keep a hospital running with a few Consultant doctors and a full team of nurses, but you can barely even hope to run a mere Outpatient department with all the doctors in the world devoid of a single nurse on board.

As I've mentioned before,
"Contrary to common thinking, it is a team effort that helps save lives."
Therefore, the message herein is twofold: 1. Respect the nurses; 2. Fear what comes with crossing a nurse.

During my stint at the Memorial Hospital (circa 2006), I remember one of my colleagues highlighting the importance of nurses; surgical nurses, to be precise. Surgery is hands-on, and the consultant will only 'hold your hand' for so long. You are expected to gain competency in surgical procedures through the long respected traditional method: "See one, do one, teach one."
However, even in cases where neither your Consultant nor medical officer are around, you are never really alone! The surgical nurses are veterans and have participated in so many surgeries as assistants in the Consultants' presence that they could actually perform some of the procedures themselves. However, since they are not legally licensed to carry out the procedures, they can at least guide you.

Now, initially, interns may be unaware of this vast resource at their disposal. Particularly egotistical interns might even rub the nurses the wrong way and choose to treat them like second class citizens. Now, nurses are a patient lot, and will usually let things slide; however, should the aforementioned intern find himself stuck during a surgical procedure in which he is the primary surgeon, then the nurses will just be content to let him sweat things out on his own. Worse still, at the end of it all, the intern would have to call his superior in to assist him, which many times could end up with the intern being berated. To me the point was clear: Respect the nurses!

I would daresay that the greater part of the refinement of my surgical technique occurred under a nurse's watchful eye. Mr. Nyabaro taught me subcuticular suturing, Mr. Mutaroki schooled me on the surgical tools; Sr. Asiago, Sr. Lydia, Sr. Dinah, Sr. Judy and Sr. Alice augmented my effort in any procedure that I performed. When the tides had turned and I had become adept at performing a myriad of the tasks, then they all helped me teach these skills to the next bunch of interns and students.

Of note is one memory that is as clear in my mind as the first day it occurred. I remember on my very first night on call in Obstetrics/Gynaecology, there was a lady who had an obstructed labour so she required a caesarean section. However, I froze up on the table, and I couldn't extract the baby; the scrub nurse was the one who successfully pulled the baby out. In the same procedure, I had yet another stroke of bad luck: I was unable to find the edges of the uterus, so I was unable to suture it and progress any further. At that point, I had to call the Medical Officer to assist me.
He was livid! From the moment he made his way into the changing room I could hear him protesting and cursing me out! He made his way into the operating room and scrubbed in amidst all sorts of threats. At the end of it all, he told me to either shape up or he would have me dismissed from the Obs/Gyne rotation. It was at that point that I made up my mind to be as self-sufficient as possible; also, I decided that I'd rather rely on fellow experienced interns or nurses to get me through the rotation.

There is a silver lining to this particular story, though: the scrub nurse was so disgusted with the behaviour displayed by my medical officer, so she made a point of reporting him to my Consultant; personally, I'm more of a "let-things-slide" kind of person (Lord knows I didn't want any bad drama), but the nurse stood up for me, and in the end won me some respite; and for that, I am deeply indebted to her.

That's right...nurses protect the doctors too! I can give two example in this regard: when (as a fledgling doctor) you mess up and write up the wrong medication, dosage or route of administration, the wise nurses will bring it to your attention, correct you (in private without embarrassing you), and prevent you from causing major harm to the patients. Also, recalling the "perception of impending death" that experienced nurses develop, the nurses will be able to draw your attention to the most critical patients. Depending on the kind of hospital you work in, sometimes the workload is overwhelming; this means you have to be able to triage the patients so you can divert a limited resource (your time, energy) where it's needed most. To the inexperienced doctor, it might be easy to get overwhelmed by the work, and to come to grips with the challenge of managing patients in a resource poor setting; however, the nurses will keep you on track, thus protecting you, the patients and the hospital's reputation all at the same time.

Don't get me wrong, I have no delusions that all nurses are good people. Some particular painful experiences during my internship came courtesy of nursing staff. Like I've mentioned previously, (medical) school doesn't teach people how to be good doctors; the very same truth applies for nurses. What I am highlighting is the positive outcome that comes from working with good nurses, and in my experience most of them have been very good individuals. There is an unparalleled synergy that just makes the job a delight. I would compare it to a good marriage where you're so in-tune with your partner that eventually you become aware of their thought patterns and can complete their sentences. I remember trusting some midwife nurses so much that if they told me that they would be unable to deliver a child naturally, everything else became academic; I would schedule the mother for a caesarean section on the spot! (You know yourselves Sr. Zipporah, Sr. Lilian, Sr. Elizabeth, Sr. Rose, Felix and Nyambane). When people give you their best each and every day, then you in turn can give your best.

This post wouldn't be complete without me reminding you to steer clear of vexing the nurses. It is one thing for nurses to bear the heavy load associated with their work; it is yet another for them to feel underappreciated, especially given the nonchalant and boneheaded manner in which people of authority have usually dealt with them. Kindly, do not add to their stresses by treating them disrespectfully for they can act out with a vengeance; keep in mind that the camaraderie between nurses runs deep, and one slight against one of them could be technically be viewed as a slight against all of them. Imagine trying to get your work done without the aid of the nurses! Thus, act accordingly and pick your battles; you can't win if you pick a fight with the nurses.

Patients too should be mindful of the manner in which they treat the nurses. In the course of their practice, the nurses develop an acumen in simple knowing the least painful way to administer a certain medication. Acting belligerent towards a person who might end up with the task of injecting you with a multiple cocktail of medications throughout the course of the day can end up causing quite painful ramifications. Therefore, please, be kind to your nurses (for your own sake).
Have a Blessed day.

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