I had the privilege of delivering the keynote speech to our hospital’s recent cohort of RN Residency New Graduate Nurses as they have completed orientation and will now be working independently in their respective units. One of the things I was most excited about was the opportunity to also briefly address the many friends and family members of these new nurses, as they probably rarely hear how they can support their beloved nurses from the start of this amazing but very challenging profession. The speech seemed well-received, so I am sharing it here in hopes it might encourage all nurses along the entire spectrum of experience.
Congratulations graduates, you made it to today! You have earned all the joy and pride and relief that comes with today – so congratulations and strong work. You have been on quite a trajectory of growth in the last 22 weeks. You’ve gone from shadowing your preceptors to walking into your own self, gone from being introduced to introducing yourself. As you have gone through Residency, you have gone through a process of becoming and being. Becoming more independent. Becoming more of a critical thinker. Becoming more confident in your skills. And your being: growing into who you are as a therapeutic presence at the bedside – a listener, an empathizer, a teacher, a professional, a servant in all the very best ways – and some of the very hardest ways – one can be a servant to others.
It is a unique profession, this thing called nursing, in which you use your mind, heart, physical being, and your soul to tend to the suffering of others. And it is a unique time for this profession, as the medications, therapies and technologies administered by the hands of nurses are developing at an incredibly rapid pace. It is every part of who you are, slowly learning to do all of these things. This is no small thing that you have signed up for – so thank you for rising to the challenge with such courage.
It has been an intense 22 weeks of growth for you throughout your Residency, and I know it is no surprise to you to hear me say, there are intense times of growth ahead. You will rightfully continue to be very focused on your growth and progress. But the temptation and the danger for every nurse, as we look to master our skills, deepen our knowledge, and establish our footing as that steady, confident presence at the bedside… the temptation is to believe that growing into a strong, independent nurse is somehow subtly equated with becoming a bit superhuman, and leaving key parts of our humanity behind because we think they make us weak.
But what I want you to take to heart is that your humanity will forever be the best and most vital thing you can give to your patients. Don’t despise your humanity – because it is the one thing that will keep your care patient-focused rather than task-focused; gracious rather than defensive; therapeutic rather than mechanical.
When I speak of giving your humanity, I’m not talking about compassion, because you all already know the importance of compassion. When I speak of giving your humanity as a gift to your patients, I’m talking about something more, perhaps something unexpected. (And before I lose all the friends and family members here, before you all start to think that this Talk is for my nurse graduate and not for me, I want to invite you to stay connected…because this is very much about you too, and you’ll hear why.)
When I talk about giving your own humanity to your patients as a gift,
- I’m talking about Fear. You are human when you feel fear about being a brand new nurse; I know it’s scary. But this fear does not have to be what makes you a weak nurse; it can be what makes you a safe nurse – asking questions, asking for help, listening to your gut to advocate for your patient when something just doesn’t feel right. This fear is what keeps you focused on the well-being of your patients, rather than just trying to get through a list of tasks. It makes you safe, and this is a gift to your patients who are trusting you to make them safe.
- I’m talking about Vulnerability. Let’s take a step back outside the hospital for a moment. Have you ever misplaced your keys, or lost your wallet? Do you remember the panic you felt about how you were going to manage the rest of your day now that this unexpected crisis has interrupted your plans? We get edgy, anxious, and generally much more focused on ourselves. We are human, which means we are susceptible to losing our keys. Now come back to the hospital where your patients and their families are human…but here, they are susceptible to losing something much more substantial. You as a nurse, as a human, know what it’s like to feel out of control, to feel vulnerable. Carry this understanding of your own vulnerability, and let it make you gracious in your patient care rather than defensive, particularly when your patients and families are having a rough day because their world is spinning out of control. Give your own vulnerability as a gift of empathy to them.
- I’m talking about Grief. And maybe some of you are thinking, hey this is our graduation ceremony, are you really going there right now? Yes…I am. Because I want you to know from the beginning that grief is not an enemy you need to conquer on your road to becoming a strong, independent nurse. If you have been human long enough, if you spend enough time with other humans battling illness or facing death, you will see grief is a natural companion in life, and it has much to teach us. Because what is grief, if not a sign of how deep love can run, a sign of how much a human life is worth? What is grief if not a sign that it is always worth it to somebody that you and I would expend ourselves in the work we do to try and save a life, or help someone die a peaceful death? Grief is not our enemy but rather our motivator to come back and press on in our pursuit of excellence as nurses. So don’t despise it; learn from it and give even your grief as a gift of your humanity to your patients.
So friends and families of our nurse grads, I just asked your beloved nurses to embrace their fears, vulnerability and their grief. And this is where you come in, in the most indescribably valuable way. Because I’m asking for your humanity too. Your beloved new graduates here have already grown into incredible nurses, and they will continue to grow. But they are going to be stretched by their fears, their vulnerability, and their grief from their experiences here. And my question to you, friends and family, is, will you open your hearts to being stretched in the same ways your loved ones will be stretched? We nurses understand that if you don’t live in our world here, it is not an easy thing to hear about what goes on inside a hospital. But the space you generously choose to give when your loved one comes to you for support can make all the difference of how well your beloved nurse can learn to embrace his or her humanity. Don’t ask them to be superhuman; give them space for their fear, their vulnerability and their grief. Help them to walk with it. Help them to give it away as a gift.
For all of us – nurse grads, family and friends of nurse grads – if there was ever a time when we needed a collective group of people to come together and say, we will make space for the humanity of ourselves and others, in all its beauty and brokenness, and let it transform us into an ever more compassionate, courageous, resilient community, this is the time. And you are the ones to do this. Graduates, what a privilege for me to be able to now work with all of you, because you are the ones to do this. Congratulations again, and welcome to the family of nurses here in our hospital!