About two years ago I entered my final nurses note into the electronic medical record system. It was the end of my 34 years as a professional nurse, the end of my daily patient appointments, the end of my last shift.
I first wore a white uniform in 1977 as a nurses aide in a large nursing home. As I put on the thick opaque white stockings and spotless white leather duty shoes for that 3-11 p.m. shift, I was apprehensive and excited about the responsibilities ahead. Until then I had been a wife, mother and part-time department store clerk. At 35, I was ready to fulfill a dream.
During the next year, caring for my elderly patients reinforced my decision to pursue a nursing education. A few months into my basic studies, an aide position became available in our local 460-bed hospital on a busy med-surg unit.
On my assigned unit, the last room in the longest wing was a private, lead-lined room reserved for patients receiving internal radiation, with strictly enforced precautions. The day after completing nurses aide orientation, I made my way from room to room, making beds and answering call lights. Carrying out each task as quickly as possible, I saw that the patient in the radiation room had been discharged and went in, gathered up the sheets from the bed and started walking up the hall toward the linen basket. The assistant head nurse was coming my way, and upon seeing me, suddenly stopped in her tracks.
Joyce! she called out, obviously upset and motioning for me to turn around. Get that linen back in the room its contaminated! Instinctively she made a protective cross in front of her body with her fingers, as if to ward off a vampire.
Oh, so the red tubs in that room were there for a reason: radiated sheets! And here I thought I was being the efficient new aide.
About five months after graduation I became an oncology nurse on a 39-bed unit in the same hospital. Now I had found my niche. In another five years I joined a private oncology practice as a chemotherapy infusion nurse and stayed for 19 years. I loved the patients and still keep in touch with many of them. Yes, Ive said a sad goodbye to many patients over the years, but Ive also seen so much progress in effective treatments and patient quality of life, particularly with genetic research and targeted drugs.
About seven years ago my husband and I moved an hour south to be nearer to our youngest grandchildren. I joined a private oncology practice in a Magnet hospital, where my manager, clinical director and colleagues graciously accommodated my limitations with EMR entries. I did patient teaching and telephone triage, and accessed port-a-caths for blood work or chemotherapy as needed, thereby freeing the other nurses to achieve greater efficiency within their own roles.
During the 34 years since donning my whites, I saw a kaleidoscope of changes in our profession. Nursing caps are out because they carried germs from bed to bed. Colorful scrubs are in. There is no smoking in the nursing stations, which was allowed during the 1980s. Paper charts are being replaced with EMRs.
Nurses dont give up their chairs for the physicians or remain silent unless spoken to; many committee meetings between nurses and physicians during the 1980s resulted in an understanding that its a medical team, not a monocracy. Maintaining a nursing license requires continuous education, and a BSN soon will become a requirement for employment. Nursing certification has expanded to include a multitude of specialties, most recently nurse navigator.
My final day was full of fond goodbyes to staff and hugs to my last scheduled patients. Shredding the tablet that Id no longer need for triage call notes, I turned to my computer and logged out for the last time. For the last time I took off my white lab coat with my name and title embroidered on it, identifying me as a professional medical caregiver. And ended my last shift.
Joyce Hislop, RN, lives in Breinigsville, Pa., and writes human-interest stories based on her nursing experience.