New grad nurse: ‘My first ward tested every part of me’

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New grad registered nurse Alexa struggled to stay afloat when she landed in a toxic environment on her first ward. But she did not break. Today on Nurse Uncut she tells the story of that ward, the stress, tension and tears. She wants nursing students and other new grads to know that she survived and still loves nursing. Tomorrow in part two of her story, Alexa describes how she was able to cope and the advice she’d give to other new grads.

Alexa writes: I worked so hard to obtain my new-grad position.

Never finishing high school, I spent 13 years working fulltime in a range of different jobs, trying to figure out just what I wanted to do. Nothing quite grabbed me. After spending time in hospital in 2011, I thought that nursing was something I could be really good at. I did an AIN course at TAFE to try it out, see if it was for me, and soon realised that it absolutely was.

I applied for and went to an awesome university and spent the next three years loving learning about all things nursing! I worked as an AIN part-time and prepared myself for my career. I was in my element. I attended every single lecture (even listening to the lectures online a second time to really absorb the content). I studied really hard and strived for high marks throughout the three years.

New grad application time came around and as any new nurse knows, this is quite possibly the most stressful part of the degree. I backed myself however and applied for a specialised Sydney hospital that only took four new grads. I knew it was a risk, but I decided to back myself and believed I absolutely could get the job.

I didn’t get the job. In fact, I was put on the eligibility list. I almost didn’t attend my graduation ball because I was one of the very few of my mates who didn’t get a position. I was devastated and felt defeated. I had worked so hard. I had worked as an AIN, gaining as much experience as possible, I had achieved high marks (I graduated with Distinction) and I had this strong love and passion for nursing.

Months after the initial offers came out (and I had been frantically writing to and calling every single nursing home in Sydney), I got a call from a hospital and they offered me my new grad position. The hospital wasn’t in Sydney but I didn’t care. The relief I felt was something I can’t explain. I felt like the universe was finally rewarding me for my efforts.

Then I started my new-grad position.

I had been warned it was going to be a challenging time, but nothing quite prepared me for what lay ahead. I’d faced many challenges up to this point and knew that whatever was thrown at me I would handle, but this challenge really did test every part of me.

On my very first day, in fact within the first five minutes, I was warned by an older nurse how difficult the ward was and that I would have a ‘horrible day’. Yep. Great start. I was then ridiculed by another nurse for asking a question that she felt was something I surely should have known. The ward itself felt toxic even on that very first day. I discovered that the medication room was not only used for medication, but was where the nurses gathered to talk nasty about other nurses. You could cut the tension with a knife. Not only was there passive aggression, there was outright rudeness and fights between nurses. I was in the NUM’s office in tears on two occasions on that first day and two nurses were reprimanded for their treatment of me.

At this point you may be thinking I am an over-sensitive softy. It’s funny, because usually I am assertive, confident and honest and can hold my own. This first day (and the many months that followed), nobody got to see the real me.

The ward itself was a busy medical ward that was under-resourced and had ratios that just made no sense for the heavy nature of the ward. It was 10 patients to two nurses, although 50 percent of the time I worked with nurses who flat-out refused to team-nurse, despite being directed to by the NUM. I knew that being a new nurse I was slower than the others. I was less skilled, I wasn’t as knowledgeable, I didn’t know where everything was in the ward, I didn’t know the pager numbers, I didn’t know how to fax to pharmacy, I didn’t know what dressings to put on what wounds, I didn’t know the procedures and protocols of the ward, the list goes on and on! The other nurses however failed to remember their first few months as a new nurse. I felt hopeless. I felt unsupported. On my first PM shift in my third week, I was team nursing with a nurse I hadn’t worked with before. I was friendly and introduced myself, saying that I was still learning and might need a bit of a hand throughout the shift. Her reply was ‘I work by myself’. She then walked away.

I spent many shifts approaching my educator about my challenges and many more shifts leaving the ward in tears. I swear I cried enough tears in that first few months to fill the pan room.

It got to a point where I would leave my shift, have a good cry, go home, try to switch off, fail to switch off, then go to bed exhausted, only to be lying awake half the night with heart palpitations and fear about having to wake up to my alarm in a matter of hours to do it all again. It was so difficult. Stress, fatigue and exhaustion took hold of me. I struggled to stay afloat. I was in meetings with the new-grad coordinators who sympathised with my difficulties and assured me that every new-grad who went to this specific ward had similar issues. At least I wasn’t alone!

After one particularly horrible shift, I left the hospital in tears and went to pick up some groceries on the way home. I left the supermarket carrying my shopping bags and began my walk home. I was exhausted and drained after my shift. It started pouring with rain and I had no umbrella. In a rush to get out of the rain, I slipped over on the footpath and onto my back, dropping my shopping bags – fruit and cracked eggs all over the ground. I sat there in the eggs and cried. Yep. That was a real low point. This poor lady came to help me up. Bruised and upset I called my sister and sobbed to her about it. She told me to go home and run a hot bath, light some candles and put some music on and try to wash it all away. I got home, sorted my groceries out, lit candles, got some relaxing music going and started running the bath and … there was no hot water. At the time I thought ‘Why is the universe punishing me!?’ That was probably one of my lowest days. My sister said I would look back one day and laugh at how unfortunate the situation was. I’m not quite there yet!

I decided to get in contact with the Employee Assistance Program (EAP) after a month on the ward. I got some counselling and learned some strategies to help me switch off after work – which was the most important thing to do. This was something that was in my control. I couldn’t change my ward or the way it functioned, but I could change how I coped outside of work.

It was really hard – don’t get me wrong. By this point I was in quite a deep depression and struggling to see the positives in anything. I would constantly say to my partner and family, ‘I cannot believe I have to do this for six months. I just can’t believe it’. But as each month passed, I realised I was doing it. I was slowly getting better at being a nurse and that made it easier to cope with the stressful environment I was in. Sure, there were often tears and many moments of doubt in myself, but I was doing it. I knew that if I got through the six months, there was a strong possibility that my next rotation would be better. It just couldn’t be any worse!

Tomorrow on Nurse Uncut: Alexa tells how she learnt to cope, what her second ward is like and gives some hard-won advice to other new grads.

Previously on Nurse Uncut:

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