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'Student nurses are often told to hold back tears and get on with the job'


On a busy acute lung ward one morning, I was helping an older gentleman to wash and dress. He was very amicable, easy to talk to and very grateful towards the staff for the work we were all doing to look after him.

I was having a good chat with him and was building a solid rapport. He told me me that his family lived just over two hours away and that he had written a biographical book for his children to read when he was no longer alive. He was naturally benevolent, spoke warmly of his family, was chirpy towards staff and always had a smile on his face, I liked him a lot.

He had been declared terminally ill earlier that morning, and had been told by the doctor that he had only a matter of weeks or months to live. I remember asking him how he had felt about this, to which he responded “I have a loving family and two wonderful children. I’m eighty five years old. I’ve had a good innings.” His courage touched me.

I left him to go and put some water in a bowl for him to brush his teeth, pulling the curtains closed behind me as I left. When I returned and opened the curtains, he was sat upright in the bed and gasping for breath while he grasped at his oxygen mask, which was danglingfrom his face. He looked pallid.

I instinctively turned the oxygen gauge to the maximum level, and quickly placed it over his face. I went to press the emergency bell, but quickly realised he was no longer receiving treatment from us, as he had been placed on the Liverpool care pathway (LCP) that morning.

Eventually, the palliative care nurse arrived. She came in and told me to take his mask off and lower his bed so that he was more comfortable.

“What else shall I do?” I remember asking in a desperate voice, uncomfortable that my patient was fighting for his life right next to me. “Hold his hand” she told me.

He no longer looked like the man I was chatting to ten minutes earlier. I sat down next to him and held his hand, as his body slowly shut down. I sat for thirty minutes until he was finally gone. His family arrived a few hours later.

If you ever have a similar experience, my advice would be to seek professional help. Student nurses are often told to hold back tears and get on with the job. Maybe a little more support with patient deaths is something student nurses would benefit from. As students we are expected to deal with a lot, so my advice would be not to underestimate how an experience like this can affect you.

“Go outside for an extra fifteen minutes, but don’t be much longer” my manager said afterwards. Sometimes the help just isn’t available, but it’s your job to look after yourself on the wards, both physically and emotionally.

Mikey Whitehead is the children’s branch student nurse editor for Student Nursing Times.


Readers' comments (2)

  • Aaron

    This is where there is a wide spectrum of how managers behave. I've seen the two extremes where one manager, like you say, gives you an extra bit of time to compose yourself or where another manager was standing by to have an in depth discussion and provide the extension numbers etc of the hospital counselor if I felt the need to speak confidentially with someone.

    As nurses we will need the ability to put our emotions on hold and get the job done, but as students we are supernumerary and need to be encouraged to explore the issues surrounding death, otherwise we will not build the resilience strategies that allow us to carry on regardless of how we feel.

    During our training is the only time we will have the latitude to reflect on our own terms, so it is imperative that we are given that opportunity. When we are qualified the world won't stop for us, bed 5 is going to need a dressing change, bed 3 is going to need a morale boosting of his own, bed 2 has developed a PUO...I don't know about anyone else but I'm going to need to develop my resilience stragies NOW if I'm going to deal with that later.

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  • Michael Whitehead

    I agree Aaron. However, where you say nurses should put their emotions on hold is correct, but I think even qualified nurses of 30 years need time to address them at some point. Whether that be talking about trauma with a professional or not feeling oestracised by other members of staff for crying in the staff room.

    Nursing has the same stigma attached to showing emotions as the football business has to talking about mental health issues. I think this needs to be addressed sooner rather than later.

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