Despite our occasional tendency to romanticise the past, being a student nurse has never been easy. It may have been fun in a ‘Sister reminded me of Stalin with her unwavering discipline, her gulags and the wavy moustache but I learnt a lot polishing that sluice’ sort of way, and we may have found ways to turn the experience into something useful, but that doesn’t mean it was ever easy.
While we may revel in the rewritten hell that was training in the 1970s (we didn’t have electricity back then, you know), 1980s (Duran Duran were often on the radio and you weren’t allowed to turn it off) or 1990s (we had to share a college with geography students) and disdainfully suggest that today’s students don’t know how lucky they are, in truth they don’t have it easy either.
Modern student nurses exist on the edges of everything. While they benefit from the standards and rigour of a university education, they aren’t quite the same as the rest of the students. They don’t get the same holidays, for a start, and often they don’t get the same financial support.
They spend time on wards and emotional energy trying to integrate, understand and learn in a clinical environment that colleagues in the history or art department really don’t have to worry about. And on the wards they can sometimes feel unskilled, or even unseen - in part perhaps because there are so many students and so much else to do that they cannot always get the attention they need or deserve.
‘Sister reminded me of Stalin with her unwavering discipline, her gulags and her wavy moustache. But I learnt a lot polishing that sluice’
And sometimes they are treated a bit like a chore. Something else to attend to, another thing on the gargantuan to-do list to be ticked off. And if you see fear in their eyes you can think ‘it isn’t easy, but learning to cope is the most important lesson there is’ which avoids the fact that we might not be offering them much comfort or warmth.
But, it being the time of year it is, I have had the good fortune recently to listen to some of the work student nurses are doing. Not only the mechanics of how they are contributing to care and developing their skills and confidence but also work around trying to bring positive qualities, ideas and energy to the care settings they work in. I have heard them talk constructively about ‘compassion’ and ‘attentiveness’ in their practice and seen them demonstrate a thoughtful integration that is genuinely impressive. Mostly I have seen them talking with empathy about how to enrich nursing care and frankly it’s inspiring.
While that says a lot about the students, it also says something about the nurses who, despite everything, manage to offer them the support and encouragement they need.
It seems to me that at a time when there is so much to worry about - from pointless managerialism to political disinvestment - it’s worth noting amid the occasional chaos some quiet brilliance, if only because such things make sense of what nursing remains: an expression of skill and humanity for the benefit of strangers called patients.
Is nurse training easier than it used to be?