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11 things they don’t tell you about being a ...

11 things they don’t tell you about being a student nurse

Are you thinking about becoming a student nurse? Waiting to start your first year? Perhaps you’re a third-year student who’s on the cusp of getting their elusive PIN and wondering if other people have felt the same way about student nurse life as you do. Maybe you’re a reader wondering why we do what we do. Because there are secrets about nursing school that no open day will talk about…

1. Hole-y Moley, it’s open season

On my first day of placement, I was asked to provide personal hygiene to a bay and a half of patients. This means cleaning from literal head to literal toe and every orifice in between. Bums, boobs, willies and balls, students get up close and (not too) personal from day 1. There are some nurses who opted out of the course after being handed a pack of Conti sheets, a bottle of soap, and a bay of patients. As a student, never, ever be known as the person who’s too posh to wash. If you feel like personal care isn’t your thing, go to medical school. Trust me, you’ve not seen genuine horror on someone’s face like a junior doctor being asked to assist with cleaning up after the enema they prescribed.

things they don't tell you about being a student nurse

2. References are life, evidence is key

Nursing is an evidence-based profession. If it wasn’t, we’d still be trepanning to relieve migraines, and using pure cut heroin to deal with infant colic. No, everything you learn has a reason, a rationale behind it. And every policy – from how to move a patient to spinal surgery – is based on evidence. You need to get out of thinking you’re doing something purely because your mentor has told you to, and think about the rationale behind it. Otherwise, we’re back to giving lobotomies for depression (incredibly, in the linked paper the writer seems surprised at the ‘lack of cooperation’ displayed by a patient about to have an ice pick shoved into their eye socket) and labelling women as hysterical after they suffer a bereavement and don’t eat normally for a few weeks. In which case, clearly the best way to treat such an evidently hysterical woman is for a chloral hydrate sedative, a potassium bromide anti-convulsant, and either milk or BEEF BROTH to be administered RECTALLY. Seriously. Which brings me on to my next point…

3. Criticism is vital, trust no one

Just because you feel like you’re ‘only a student nurse’ doesn’t mean you can’t be critical of others’ work. If we just took everything ever published as doctrine, we would still be shoving beef stock and potassium up people’s bums if they suffered a bereavement. I mean, this advice was actually published in the British Medical Journal, which even today is well respected. It took someone to say ‘Hang on, do you think the previously non-compliant patient became compliant because she didn’t fancy being held down for an embarrassing enema every day, rather than the beef concoction itself?’ Remember this: You are never just a nurse. Doctors get things wrong. All. The. Time. In practice and in theory. Have the confidence to say ‘mate, that just doesn’t seem right’ if you think it doesn’t seem right.

things they don't tell you about being a student nurse

4. ‘You’re becoming a nurse? WHY?!’

I’ve heard this from family, friends, and random people who’ve asked what I do for work. You see the look of horror on their face as you explain you’re a student nurse. Everything from the rubbish salary to the sometimes gruesome nature of the role will be presented to you. ‘But you know you’ll see dead people?’ ‘Don’t you want to make proper money?’ ‘Why on EARTH would you want to HELP PEOPLE, you SELFLESS CARING idiot?’ Always remember your reasons for becoming a nurse, and never let someone else’s negative perceptions of the profession undermine your joy.

5. Life becomes all about nursing

Placements are long and essays are abundant. Mix in med calc, bioscience and OSCEs and it’s really difficult to not feel overwhelmed. Something has to give, whether that’s spending time with family, or giving up a hobby, or only sleeping 5 hours a night. Ensure you maintain a healthy balance, but be prepared to say no to social functions in favour of a health promotion case study every now and then.

6. Patients will tell you EVERYTHING

Often, patients won’t know you’re a student nurse. They see the tunic and the badge and to them, you’re as qualified as the consultant who just ordered their spinal surgery. As that’s the case, you’ll hear life stories, regrets, and everything else borne out of the fear they may not get better. Even a Catholic priest at Confession doesn’t have a patch on a student nurse’s inside information. Because oftentimes, you’re the person they open up to, and you’ll be surprised what you can learn. Sometimes, patients will reveal more secrets to students than your mentor. Treasure that privilege.

things they don't tell you about being a student nurse

7. Nurses can be bullies

There are bullies in every walk of life, and sadly there are bullies in nursing. But never let their failings as a decent person affect your passion and drive to succeed. Nurses who are jaded and bored with their job sometimes take it out on fresh-faced students rather than actually deal with their own shortcomings. If things get awful, then use your union and university to ensure your learning isn’t compromised. And most of all, feel sad that someone acts in such a way. Clearly they’re unhappy, yet so mindlessly bone idle they won’t fix their own issues like an actual adult.

8. You will find the only place in the hospital with phone signal

After a tough morning, sometimes you just need some contact with the outside world to remind you that most people sit at a desk from 9-5 and don’t need to deal with bad news, rude patients, body fluids and long days. Most wards and placement areas are a black hole and soulless vacuum of signal. As a student nurse, within a few days, you’ll be able to find that one toilet in the cafe that brings glorious 4G back into your life. Treasure it.

9. Say goodbye to your gag reflex

Your lunch will involve discussing mushy stools and whether that infected leg smells like necrosis or a simple ulcerous infection. You’ll know what a UTI wee smells like, and what rotting flesh looks like. Vomit will remind you to get your slow cooker out as you really fancy a stew for dinner tomorrow, and Type 7 stools will have you a-hankering for Nutella on toast. Don’t be surprised if someone on the next table asks you to change the subject before they projectile vomit all over the cafe walls.

10. You wear scrubs at home because really they’re just outside pyjamas

Turning up to placement in your pressed and starched uni tunic only to be given a pair of freshly laundered scrubs to wear is the best feeling in the world. Scrubs will become the major influence factor in considering job options when you graduate too. Seriously, they’re like wearing PJs at work. Without all the people wondering if you’re suffering a bit of a mental breakdown. I’m wearing some right now.

11. People will be ridiculously proud of you

For every bitter, jaded, unhappy nurse who says you’re making a mistake entering the profession, for every random member of the public who looks down on your decision, for every family member who doesn’t understand how you can cope with the gruesome reality of nursing, there will be a myriad of people who will be so, so proud of what you’re learning. They’ll ask your advice – and actually take it seriously – when they feel unwell. They’ll introduce you as ‘our nurse’ rather than ‘our daughter/cousin/friend’. They’ll respect you and be so happy that you’re becoming a competent professional. They’ll love how much you progress, and beam at your dedication. They’ll make you feel like it’s worth it, that you’re just brilliant. And you’ll feel so proud. And so you should, too.


  • Emily Weatherstone

    Do you think being a nurse is the same as it was 10 years ago?

    • I honestly wouldn’t know, I’m a second year student at the moment but perhaps someone who reads can weigh in?

  • Mickey

    love it… I would add how some placements are not student friendly and want students for an extra pare of hands…. i would say studetnst need to stand up for thereselfs…. you are not jsut a student!!!

    • Definitely. We shouldn’t be afraid to say no to doing the basics and carving out learning opportunities to add to our skill set.

  • Dan Copping

    I’m definitely in the group of people who have no idea how you can tolerate it. Just seeing a hospital out of a bus window, I feel a raw sense of dread. For what you are and what you do, I respect you.

    I was entertained by the way you tell it too.

    Dan Copping
    http://www.somethingmoreweekly.com

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