As a student nurse, the first death we experience is sort of a rite of passage - a moment which will always be etched in our memory.
I was absolutely adamant that I would be the epitome of cool, calm and collected during my first death as a student nurse. But as is the way with many things in nursing, the reality of my first death was very different to how I imagined. I was not in uniform with a supportive mentor by my side; I was in a hospital gown as a patient in the Intensive Care Unit.
My first death was not a patient of mine, it was the woman in the bed next to me. I was not the calm professional I desperately wanted to be; I was an emotional wreck. It was everything I hadn’t planned for and had me questioning whether I was really cut out for nursing.
”I could hear everything and knew exactly what was happening during the attempt at resuscitation”
Contrary to popular belief, hospital curtains aren’t soundproof. I could hear everything and knew exactly what was happening during the attempt at resuscitation. The people who rushed in and out of the cubicle left gaps in the curtains and I could see what was happening. I never knew the woman personally so it felt wrong to be present and involved with a moment as intimate as her death.
”I am well aware that death is part and parcel of nursing so why did it leave me, as a patient, feeling distraught for weeks after?”
I am well aware that death is part and parcel of nursing so why did it leave me, as a patient, feeling distraught for weeks after? I suppose there must be some truth in the analogy of nursing uniforms which act as a suit of armour, a barrier that protects us from all the things which hurt the most. As a student, I can always talk things through with my mentor, which makes everything that little bit easier to deal with. But I think it’s very easy to forget that on the other side of the curtain is another patient, someone who does not have the same support mechanisms and barriers and who it is assumed will just deal with what they’ve experienced because that’s what nurses do.
”Now when I close the curtains between bed spaces I am reminded of how little privacy and dignity they really provide”
Nurses will often say to me how you learn so much from your first death and I think that’s true in both a professional and personal capacity. Despite the fact that my first death was seen as a patient rather than a nurse, it still challenged me professionally. Now when I close the curtains between bed spaces I am reminded of how little privacy and dignity they really provide. I think about the people on the other side of the curtains and how they might view what’s going on around them. I’ve also learnt just how important it is to talk things through with my mentor, because whilst we may have our uniforms to protect us initially, that suit of armour does eventually come off and when it does, we are suddenly confronted with our previously supressed emotions. We need to deal with them because otherwise they’ll never really go away.
If I close my eyes, I can still relive the moment of my first death - but it doesn’t disturb me like it used to. I learnt it’s actually ok to be upset; it means you care, it doesn’t mean you’re not cut out for nursing. I am absolutely adamant that my experience of my first death will make me not just a better nurse but a better person, because being able to see things from both perspectives can only be a good thing, right?
Libbie Bulmer is a second-year adult nursing student at the University of York