Advice To My Kids As They Became New Nurses

Love, Mom (an old nurse)

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I am completely unbiased in my opinion that being a registered nurse is the best career a person (who can deal with blood and needles) can choose. It has everything: interesting and meaningful work, good pay, good health insurance, and endless possibilities to expand and change direction. Don’t like general care? Move to the ICU, be a school nurse, be a nursing professor, go back to school and be a nurse anesthetist (a brilliant move in my, again, unbiased opinion), a nurse midwife, or a nurse practitioner.

When my two oldest kids graduated from nursing school I was about as proud as any mama has ever been. I had already written them a letter with generalized life advice when they graduated from high school. I decided to continue the tradition of advice–giving-through–a–letter for their college graduation as well.

The Letter

My Dear, Beautiful Kiddo, RN

Welcome! You are entering a profession whose purpose and history is steeped in caring for humanity’s powerless, sick, hurt, and scared. Be proud and honor that tradition.

These are the things I want you to remember as you begin your nursing career:

At the Hospital — Caring for Your Patients

  • Ask questions. No matter how long you’ve been a nurse — no one can know everything.
  • Recognize when you need help. It’s the fastest way to earn your co-worker’s trust. No one feels comfortable with a nurse who doesn’t know when they need help.
  • Don’t be discouraged. In the beginning, being a good nurse is a lot of really fucking hard work. You need to give yourself at least a year before you will even start to feel comfortable. It will happen though. I promise.
  • Always be a little on edge. Be aware of all the ways things can go wrong for your patient.
  • Be an advocate. If you don’t speak up for your patient, there may be no one else who will.
  • Leave your own problems at home. You’re no good to anyone if you can’t learn to do that. It helps to remember any day on this side of medicine is a pretty good day.
  • Buy really good quality shoes and leave them at work (do you have any idea what kind of shit you are going to step in?!). Also, wear compression stockings, trust me, it makes a HUGE difference.
  • Never turn down a break (unless you are doing chest compressions…).
  • Never turn down help.
  • Wash your hands before and after you use the bathroom.
  • Be kind to everyone. Even the most beastly patient deserves your kindness.
  • Protect your patient’s dignity whenever you can.
  • Don’t be lazy. Look up everything about your patients. Know what their hemoglobin is and if it’s a change from the last one. Do everything that you are supposed to do and then do more.
  • Don’t skip any steps in the process of giving meds — that’s where most errors happen.
  • Do what needs to be done. Even if it isn’t your job.
  • Every time you have a new patient, take a minute and review in your mind all of the possible problems their illness/surgery could cause. Think of what symptoms you would see, and then have a plan for all of them (first step in 99.9% of those plans will be- call for help!)
  • Practice defensive nursing. Assume everyone you care for will code and know where you are going to push the drugs.
  • Be calm. In emergencies, force yourself to slow down your thinking and see what is going on. You know what to do, you are trained — that’s not the problem. The problem is being able to be calm enough to think through the situation.
  • In an emergency, after help is there, pick one job (giving meds, doing compressions, drawing labs, charting etc.) and focus on that job. Pay attention to the person running the code (because that could be you someday) and be ready to do your job every time it’s requested. If there are enough people, don’t try to get your hands in everything — it makes for an unorganized code.
  • Don’t let anyone die alone.
  • It’s okay to cry for your patients and their families — you might be the only one who does.

As A Professional — Caring for Your Career

  • Be involved. In your professional organizations, your work committees — have a voice in the decisions that affect you.
  • Don’t complain about work at work. It’s an easy habit to get into, but rarely solves anything and only labels you as a complainer.
  • Think of solutions. If you have a legitimate concern, create possibilities, then bring both to your supervisor.
  • The only thing constant in medicine is change. Just accept it, do your best to embrace it and move on.
  • Keeping learning. Read medical journals, review textbooks.
  • Don’t become complacent. Even though you will soon be a really good nurse (I know you will!), always be willing to learn from other people — even if they are newer than you.
  • Be the first to volunteer for shitty and/or scary assignments — you’ll learn a ton. And not be scared of anything.
  • If you mess up, and you will because everyone does, make sure your patient is okay first. Then fess up, deal with the consequences, and then forgive yourself. You can only be excellent. You cannot be perfect.

At Home — Caring for Yourself

  • Take care of yourself. Be the best nurse for your patients. You have no business taking responsibility for someone’s life after a night of partying or staying up late.
  • Don’t run errands in your scrubs. That’s gross and spreads all kinds of nasty throughout the community.
  • Develop a neutral face. Everyone (and I mean everyone!) will suddenly feel comfortable talking to you about their bowel habits, their burning with urination, and their hemorrhoids … just go with it, even when you mind is screaming “oh, my god — what the fuck?!?!”
  • That neutral face will also come in handy for situations when you realize how little the average person knows about how their body works (No Grandma, that abdominal pain is not your prostate acting up).
  • The world is not a fair place, and awful things happen to really good people.
  • You have a ringside seat to a lot of human suffering. Don’t let it harden you and don’t let it develop into fears that control you. Make sure you have an outlet for the sadness and fury at the way life is.
  • You also have a ringside seat to humanity’s strength, dignity, resilience, grace, and love. Learn from that.
  • Don’t feel guilty about the satisfaction that comes from testing your skills and knowledge in an emergency while trying to save a life. Awful things happen to people whether you are there or not to learn from those situations. So, learn from the shittiness.
  • Find a place in your life where you can go to be reminded that the world really is a beautiful place because sometimes all you will be able to see is the ugly.

You are going to be an amazing nurse. You’ve chosen a beautiful profession and as an old nurse, I am thrilled to welcome you.

All my love,


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Amy Torbenson

Amy Torbenson

Mom of two amazing sons and one amazing daughter, lifelong reader of anything and everything, (really) slow runner, and a terrible cook.