What I Would Tell My 19-Year-Old Self at the Beginning of My Nursing Career


Published: 03 April 2017

Looking back, this is what I would tell myself, knowing what I know now.

We all know the value of hindsight. Imagine having the opportunity to tell your 19 or 20 year old self what to do.

What would you say to your younger self, right at the start of your nursing career?

My Nurse Training

My story begins at 19 years of age, rocking up to the nursing school, bags in tow.

Remember, this was 1982 and it was deemed, at the time, better for nurses to live-in. I don’t think those in charge thought we were responsible enough to do all the study required for us to get ready, if left on our own. Not to mention we only had eight weeks before being let loose on the floor as a first year nurse. Scary, really.

I now look back and think that the eight weeks together was about developing connections and bonds that would stay with us always. We laughed together, cried together and supported each other through good times, and bad. I would have missed out on that if I wasn’t forced to live-in.

The first eight weeks really were an awesome experience. I think there were roughly 100 of us, all starting on a journey to be caring nurses.

I met lots of new people, shared lots of new experiences and started learning what it means to be a nurse.

I clearly remember learning how to wash people, how to make a bed with hospital corners, and other very ‘technical’ skills.

What I Would Tell Myself:

  • You are about to enter an amazing profession. You will meet amazing people that will inspire you. You will also meet people that disappoint you.
  • Enjoy the moment and embrace the opportunities and adventures that living in a shared accommodation gives you. You will develop lifelong friendships and that is something to be very grateful for.
  • Be brave and courageous and trust that you have made the right decision.
  • When you meet amazing people that inspire you, model them. What do you like about them, and how can you bring that into your work life?

My First Ward

My first year; my first ward.

They sent me to the private ward… it was busy. I was conflicted – I knew I would learn a lot in this position but I was shattered that I wouldn’t get to work with the other young spunky residents.

This ward was a huge learning curve and despite being overwhelmingly busy, I had committed to doing my best.

What I Would Tell Myself:

  • Learn to be more present. Not only with the patients but with your colleagues.
  • This included listening, and I mean really listening.
  • You will learn more from a patient sometimes by what they are not saying.
  • This is where I truly developed empathy skills. I see empathy as one of the most important skills in nursing.

Brene Brown has an excellent three minute talk on the importance of empathy that is worth looking at:

Sometimes I think there is so much going on and we are forever trying to multitask. I now don’t believe in multitasking and focus on what I am doing at the time. Be more present.

The next thing I remember was on the same ward…

My First Injection

This has changed so much. Back then injections were the main form of post-operative analgesia.

It was fair to say we gave a lot of injections, and it was fair to say the patients did not get very good pain relief (but that’s a whole other story).

In this instance, we had the pethidine checked and drawn up. We went to the patient and checked her identity. We rolled her on her side and exposed her bottom.

I remember very clearly being scared out of my wits. I punctured the skin of the patient and the supervising nurse yelled, “No!”

…I hadn’t drawn my ‘imaginary square’. I was supposed to be injecting in the upper-outer quadrant and was too close to the sciatic nerve. I had to withdraw the needle and inject again in another spot.

It was awful. The patient had two stabs and I didn’t change the needle. Lesson learned.

What I Would Tell Myself:

  • Know what you are doing before you go to the patient, and if you are not sure, double-check or ask for help!

the Beginning of My Nursing Career

My Next Ward

My next ward was back in the public part of the hospital. I was excited – it was time to meet some young, spunky residents! (Ha-ha was I disappointed).

I did meet some incredible people: doctors, nurses, patients, managers… and boy did I learn a lot from them.

What I Would Tell Myself:

  • Everybody is really doing the best they can with the resources they have available.

This ward was both good and bad for me.

One important lesson I learned came at the end of my time on this ward.

In my mind, I had thought the rotation had gone well: no major setbacks or outstanding things happened… until I fronted up for my appraisal.

Though it was probably not as bad as it had felt at the time, I can remember the nurse manager telling me what a terrible nurse I was. I stood thinking she had me mixed up with someone else (yes, I thought I was a pretty good first year nurse…)

What I Would Tell Myself:

  • There is no failure, only feedback. No one can make you feel like a failure – only you can give it that meaning.
  • Take that appraisal and use it to be a better nurse.
  • Own your actions and be totally accountable for the results that you are getting.
  • Learn from that manager what not to do. If you have an issue, deal with it straight away so it can be corrected as soon as possible (don’t wait until the end of the rotation!)

I have many, many more lessons and tips that I would tell my younger self, picked up from years of learning. These lessons can really relate to all nurses, no matter how or when you trained, the messages stay the same. Everything in life has a lesson behind it.

Embrace the journey, whether you are just beginning, or are a seasoned 50-something nurse like me. So many opportunities are open to you.