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Personal experiences can enhance skills

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Does caring for desperately sick parents at home make you a better practitioner on the wards? If so, I might have expected to become a first-rate nurse in the space of a few months.

My mother’s health, never that wonderful, suddenly worsened when she hit 68, and arthritic pain in her spinal column and neck began to radiate down her arms. Severe osteoporosis took its toll and she lost over two inches in height. In addition, she had two strokes and three mini-strokes within a couple of years, though mercifully without permanent paralysis or aphasia.

Meanwhile, my father had enjoyed 66 years of near-perfect health. Then everything seemed to go wrong at once. I looked on helplessly as three life-threatening disorders were diagnosed – mediastinal lymphoma, a huge aortic aneurysm and an incompetent cardiac valve. The prognosis was – and remains – pretty bleak. Surgery may be the only way of saving him, yet is so high risk as to be impracticable.

As a nursing student, these experiences force me back to a fundamental question: is medical knowledge always an advantage to the carer?

In general, I feel you can never have too much knowledge.

However, where your nearest and dearest are concerned, the emotional detachment essential to your work can become more difficult to achieve. Understanding their medical conditions means you may worry and become less able to help them, and this worry may spill over to your ward work.

Perhaps the only certainty is that I can now empathise more fully with patients’ families, for I know I have been there, seen it and suffered it myself. In that sense alone, it may make me a more versatile nurse – if at an emotional cost that I inwardly hate to pay.

Lesley McHarg is a third-year nursing student in Scotland

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