A Big Nursing School Mistake: Don't Do What I Did

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“I’ll be a terrible nurse! How can I save someone’s life if I can’t even make it through a day beside my preceptor?!”

Yesterday I was walking behind two nursing students who were leaving their clinical rotation for the day and I overhead them discussing their experiences. One of the students was very upset because she’d had an “off” day. She’d missed an IV start 3 times, she had forgotten to check a patient’s vitals when she should have, she dropped a cup of meds on the floor while administering them, she’d taken too long inserting a Foley catheter on a patient with congestive heart failure and as a result the patient had an acute episode of difficulty breathing… her list went on. And understandably she was quite distraught about it all.

“My patients will hate me! Worse, the doctors will hate me!”

My big nursing school mistake: Don't do what I did

And as I walked behind them sipping my coffee, I smiled. Now, before you think I’m just a spiteful and grizzled nurse who revels in others misery, let me tell you that I wanted to put my hand on her shoulder and tell her it would be alright. Because here’s the thing…

Everyone makes mistakes. EVERYONE. And the mistakes aren’t just in nursing school. As much as we try not to make even the tiniest mistake, nurses are humans too and mistakes will happen. And the truth is that if we didn’t make mistakes then we would never learn. Mistakes provide the opportunity to grow and practice. The only people who don’t make mistakes are the ones who don’t put any effort forward or try new things…and frankly, that in itself is a mistake, so see, everyone makes mistakes.

Accelerated nursing school clinicals are designed to provide student nurses with the chance to practice skills, and make mistakes, in a safe setting. There will always be someone there to prevent the mistake from getting too ugly, or who can correct it, or who can sometimes even prevent it. The mistakes you will make (yes, I did say “will make.” Just start getting comfy with that idea now because it will save you a lot of tears down the road.), are the opportunities for growth.

When I think about my time in nursing school and the mistakes I made, I laugh. So many of them were inconsequential, like missing a blood draw or other such thing. But there is one mistake I made that I do feel had an impact on my success as a nurse. And it has nothing to do with patients. Looking back, I realize my biggest nursing school mistake is that I should have spent much more effort in developing relationships with the nurses on the floor during clinicals. I should have tried to forge better friendships and should have kept in touch with them after that particular rotation was over. I should have gone out of my way to introduce myself to the charge nurses and the unit managers and directors. Not only are these people amazing sources of information and support, but they are also your best opportunity to hear about potential jobs when you graduate. Nurse managers receive a lot of qualified applications on their desk when a new job is posted. Having a personal relationship, or at least being a familiar name, will be instrumental in moving your application to the need-to-interview pile.

As a student nurse I was very focused on providing the best clinical care I could. I researched my patients and looked up articles relative to their conditions and spent so much time focused on their care… but I didn’t focus as much on cultivating those relationships with the nurses and managers. Worried about being seen as a competent caregiver took precedence over everything else and as a result I missed out on a few opportunities that my peers got to capitalize on. There was one student nurse in my cohort in particular who always seemed to have the most fulfilling, exciting clinical experiences every time he set foot on the floor. His preceptors seemed to always go out of their way to seek out things for him to be involved in… he once had the chance to help insert a chest tube at the bedside! And it wasn’t even his assigned patient! I was seething with jealousy! Sure, Steve was an amazing nurse-to-be and that definitely opened some doors, but the real difference was that Steve went out of his way to meet other nurses and strike up conversations. They got to know him as a person, not just as a student who would be gone before the end of their shift. And as a result he had both an unbelievable clinical experience as an accelerated nursing school student and an unbelievable number of job offers when he graduated.

Looking back, I realize I was very lucky to have as many job offers as I did as a new nurse graduate. It dawns on me that of all the units I interviewed with, only one of them was a unit that I had not done a clinical rotation on. So maybe I did a slightly better job at building relationships than I first gave myself credit for… but I definitely could have done more. My biggest piece of advice to you is to channel your inner “Steve” and really put yourself out there, even if it seems as daunting as getting your IV on the first try does now.