Ten experiences every nurse needs before graduating from nursing school

Ten experiences each student nurses needs to have before getting out of nursing school

There are two trends in nursing school today that bother me. I know that I am an opinionated curmudgeon at times, but I need to say these out loud, just in case the act of putting it out there makes them go away like magic. In reality, I know that we can’t wave a magic wand and get what we want, but – work with me on this!

The first is a nationwide trend. Every nursing school is full to the max with students and it is harder to get optimal clinical experience. We are substituting simulated experiences for the real thing. We focus on “the standard patient” as if all patients are standard when they are not.

The second is, we are losing the old “what is nursing” battle. By that I mean, there is increased emphasis on medical content. Physiology, pharmacology, surgery, etc. less emphasis on psychosocial implications. This goes hand in hand with the lack of “role socialization” in nursing.

Tip: the NCLEX tests nursing, not medicine. Every question on the NCLEX is either an Assessment, Planning, Implementation or Evaluation question. The Nurse Practice Acts define nursing according to APIE and nursing diagnosis; the “junior doctor” parts are limited to the section on Delegation. Every nursing faculty needs to ask themselves about whether they are teaching nursing or medicine, and to have a clear handle on the difference. If your school is having problems with NCLEX pass rates, it’s probably because the faculty are confused about this specific principle.

Let’s explore the above, shall we?

To begin with, I first taught on a nursing faculty fulltime in 1990. I taught maternity and pediatrics, and took students to a hospital for OBGYN that did about 1200 deliveries a year. That meant an average of one baby born per shift. Sometimes more, sometimes less. In those days I made a pact with the students. If they would be flexible about their hours the day they were in Labor and Delivery, so would I. the goal was to help them have the experience of seeing a baby born. In the three years that I supervised students in L & D clinical, every one of them did see a delivery. One time I hung around until 9 PM. That specific student got the idea of how long it actually takes to deliver a baby. the idea was to get a first hand look at the way all the theoretical stuff translates into what is done in real life.

When we try to simulate every experience, there is a tendency to only present scenarios where the ideal is portrayed, and to sanitize everything somehow.

On a related note, on day one of maternity orientation, I always asked the nurses to save me a fresh placenta or two. We would all don gloves, look at the membranes, the cotelydons, the shiny and dirty side, etc and marvel at it. I always viewed this as an important experience to have. It desensitized the student to the appearance of body tissue, helped them to visualize what we were talking about ( so much of prenatal care is designed to help grow a healthy placenta) and removed some mystery.

Nowadays, I am sure there are people who would look on horror and say “Om My God, it’s exposure to body fluids!” – well – no – not when PPE is applied. even in those days we wore gloves.

Ten. maybe more

There are ten clinical experiences you should have. I sincerely hope that every nurse gets these while still in nursing school, but if you don’t you still need to find them at some point. The advantage of having them in nursing school is, an experienced person can interpret the experience for you. Guidance from a guru is critical to draw the proper conclusions. By proper I mean, conclusion which reflect the role socialization appropriate to nursing.  without the proper guidance any of these can do a number on your head.

1) Coaching a woman through labor and seeing a baby born.
2) Giving a shot to a 2-year-old. Getting a 2-year-old to do anything!
3) Being with a person who is dying from cancer. Two parts: talking to them before hand; and being present at time of death.
4) Seeing surgery
5) Smelling cautery. Or any one of about a dozen distinctive olfactory stimuli peculiar to health care.
6) Having a conversation with a person suffering from delusions or psychosis.
7) Talking with family members of a person having a serious illness, whether it’s acute or home-based.
8) Doing CPR
9) Dealing with a drunk person.
10) Helping a person who is a member of an oppressed minority, whether it is a racial or ethnic group, a group subject to bullying, or perhaps a homeless person.
11) Giving nursing care to a person who is seriously ill but who is your own mirror image in terms of age, social level, education, family etc.

The key to each of the above is, it’s not about the actual experience per se. it’s about incorporating the interpersonal flexibility required to actually be of use to the person receiving the care, and about dealing with your own feelings and reactions. There is only one way to do CPR ( the Heart Association protocols) but it is inevitable that you will have personal thoughts go through your mind when you are doing compressions, and these need to be considered “by hand.”

special note about autopsies

I was once asked by a student how come viewing an autopsy is not something we can arrange, or why we don’t include it or promote it. At the time I thought the student ( a male of course) didn’t quite “get it” and had a sort of voyeuristic quality to his request. “What is the goal?” I asked. Let me emphasize that simply getting these experiences checked off is not the purpose.  The purpose is to develop an overall professional approach that can be generalized to all such experiences that have any aspect of threat to the self-image of the student.

If I had to name a single concept that everyone needs to grasp, it’s “this is not a game, not just a well-paying job, but a critical service offered to society by members of this profession.”  Often by being the one  person in the room who is maintaining composure during a stressful event.  You could look at the above list in that way.

For each of the things listed above, there are certain professional expectations as to how a successful nurse conducts themselves. I could write a blog on each one to detail these, but hey – that is what textbooks are for!

hint: we can develop a simulated experience to go with each of the above, but it will never substitute for the doing of the actual thing for a real person. Not ever. just about every negative experience can be reframed into something positive with proper guidance. (for example, cleaning human fecal incontinence can be viewed as distasteful because it involves feces, or else we can reframe it into helping the person feel better and clean while retaining dignity).

Nursing Diagnosis sayonara

As to the “junior doctor vs actual nurse” argument – I worry. There is a trend by which nursing schools are quietly getting away from the teaching of nursing diagnosis. What does your school do?

I have heard all kinds of rationales – “practicing nurses don’t use it” being the main one. My answer is, “practicing nursing surely do use nursing diagnosis!” though maybe they call it something else. Maybe they have it down so well they it is less obvious, but I guarantee you that no hospital can have a functioning customer service program unless somebody in the nursing service uses psychosocially-based problem-solving. Caring is a learned behavior, and nursing diagnosis is the vehicle by which we teach people how to care. You need more than just warm positive regard for the person you are serving. It’s too hit or miss otherwise.

Hold hands before crossing the street – the lost art of curriculum design

Nowadays in the shortage of nursing faculty, we are pressing into service anybody with a Master’s Degree, including nurses that took a Nurse Practitioner course and never took even one course in pedagogy, test construction, curriculum design, or anything. Such a new faculty person needs guidance in how to be a teacher.

Curriculum Implications

When ever there is a transition from one curriculum to another, or whenever you are designing a comprehensive course of study, it’s useful to think of a “crosswalk.” In the parlance of educational design, a crosswalk is a comparison of two lists. The first is the “old curriculum” and the seconds is the new. Where does a theme of nursing school appear in any given course of study? If it was there before and you are changing your curriculum, where is it now? It is a useful exercise to make a list of things the student is expected to know (we call them “outcomes”) and to actually place them somewhere along the line, in a rational sequence. For example, if a student nurse has never dealt with a normal person having a crisis, why would a curriculum expose that same student to concepts of mental illness first? The crosswalk needs to be analyzed according to how to teach psychosocial needs in a logical sequence. This is simply lost when the coursework focuses on a tour of body systems or medical diagnoses.

Bottom line

To become a fully actuated professional nurse is a lifelong process. When a nursing school teaches you how to care, they are teaching you “how to be a human” – which sounds easy. It’s something we need to think about….. If we only present the “standard case” we are focusing too much on the basic medical care, and not enough on the psychosocial.



Filed under nursing education, Uncategorized

2 responses to “Ten experiences every nurse needs before graduating from nursing school

  1. suzannek2013

    Could I add a 12th experience every nursing student should have? Caring for a client longitudinally- following over time and across settings. These are rich experiences. (We had one clinical on an acute neuro unit that had an attached rehab section, and each of us had one client for the whole semester. I visited mine at the LTC afterwards too. In OB, we made a home visit to one of our clients after delivery.) Other nurses who have had similar experiences while in school have told me the same thing- these are valuable and memorable experiences.

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