Uncommon Career Advice for People Going into Healthcare

A couple of friends who operate a local fast-food restaurant recently invited me to spend time with a few of their young staff members via Zoom to offer perspective and advice on “How to Prepare for a Career in Healthcare.” Recognizing that the majority of their staff will likely move on to other career pursuits in the relatively near future, these friends have recognized this opportunity they have to lovingly mentor their employees and help launch them into their next steps.

It was wonderfully refreshing to meet a small group of young, big-hearted dreamers who were all already taking proactive steps to move towards a career in healthcare. Some had just started nursing school, some just got notice of their acceptance into a nursing program, and one was pursuing experience as a medic to get her feet wet with the world of healthcare. As I prepared for this meeting, I spent time considering not only the “usual” advice that I found helpful when I was at that stage, but also the not-oft-discussed kind of perspective that I wished seasoned people had shared with me. It is the latter that I’ll spend time sharing in this post.

  1. Most people pursue a career in healthcare because we truly want to help others in meaningful ways, but we are stretched over time to consider much broader pictures of what “helping” looks like.

In the beginning, our vision of what “helping” looks like understandably skews strongly towards general and sometimes overly simplistic pictures in our mind of “helping people get better” and “comforting the suffering.” Over time, however, I think we are pushed to develop a more nuanced, robust understanding of what it looks like to ‘help’ others when we encounter complicated situations that expose our helplessness. What does helping look like when the disease cannot be cured, and families plunge into grief they were not prepared for? When the patient and family are frustrated with the care provided because they can’t make sense of the medical interventions that are in fact contributing to healing, but not on the timeline or in the ways they expected? When despite all your efforts to ‘help’, the patient and family can’t move past their deep bitterness and distrust?

Go into this career with that beautiful heart wide open to help others, but don’t get too locked into certain definitions of what “helping” is going to look like. You’re going to be challenged as you encounter many different kinds of people, cultures, complicated medical situations and roadblocks, even perceived failure – especially if the patient dies. Your idea of helping may not fit nicely into each patient case because of all these potential differences and more.

Finding roads and means to “helping others” often takes many detours off the beaten path, and requires tremendous openness of mind and heart, expanded patience with people you struggle to understand (and vice versa), and a slower, closer posture of listening.

2. Confidence, while necessary, needs to have its limits.

It makes sense that we expect confidence and self-assurance to be an invaluable quality of someone who goes into healthcare. You’re entering into a field where crisis can come crashing through the door, looking for your help – or crisis can happen at any moment in a seemingly stable patient and you have to be prepared. This is why all healthcare workers are required to know at least Basic Life Support. We don’t learn and practice compressions and rescue breaths for a career path where you’re never expected to confidently pull out those skills on a moment’s notice. There are obvious reasons why a nursing student likely would not pass clinical rotations if he/she ran away from complicated patient situations out of fear and overwhelmedness.

That said, confidence needs to have its limits, particularly if you a very new nurse, respiratory therapist, really anyone in healthcare. Seasoned staff want you to be able to overcome nerves and be willing to enter into challenging situations with guidance. But the “with guidance” clause is key. We don’t expect you to know how to handle everything. We know you don’t know everything. (Neither do we!) We expect you to know your limits, ask questions if you are unsure, and always maintain a baseline teachability throughout your entire career. It’s the brand new staff who never ask questions that worry us the most.

3. A couple of unusual suggestions on practical steps in preparing for a career in healthcare:

I of course presented the more standard advice on preparing for a career in healthcare: Get strong training in science and math. Try to get volunteer or paid positions doing direct patient interaction and care, such as nurse aide positions or hospital volunteer opportunities as the world slowly re-opens to more people in this stage of COVID. Working in fast food is a great way to prepare because you interact with a very wide variety of people in a fast-paced, team-centered environment.

But I also offered two other less traditional pieces of advice:

Spend close time with people who are suffering. There are some who come into healthcare who are strong with their book knowledge, time management and technical skills, but are wholly unfamiliar with the actual experience of sitting closely with the intense grief and suffering of another person. Sometimes it is hard to watch the lack of therapeutic presence and response that comes from those in healthcare who are so very uncomfortable with the deep agony of others. It’s hard to hear emotionally insensitive remarks made by people who are supposed to be “there to help others.” Typically, it is those who have been around a lot of suffering who are able to show up to their patients and patients’ families with an entirely different emotional, social, and spiritual skill set that proves to be invaluable. They’ve learned to be more present without presuming a need (or ability) to jump in and fix. They’ve learned how to start wrestling with some of the hardest questions in life; they give generous space for their patients and families to do the same.

If you’re not sure what level of intensity you can handle in healthcare, watch well-made documentaries and read well-written books that tell the stories of suffering, death and dying. Pay close attention to what happens in you as you engage with these stories. Do you have to stop mid-way because the story and elicited emotions are too overwhelming? Can you watch all the way through, but then you’re kept up for the next three nights because of the story you took in? How do you process the impact the story is having on you? Before I became a nurse, I was utterly drawn to all the books and documentaries about the raw human experience with suffering, death and dying. Heavy as the stories were, I wanted to hear all of them. I wanted to step into the stories. I wanted to be in the room with the patients and families, ask more questions, understand more of their experiences. This was a helpful indicator to me that the ICU might be a good fit for me.

But certainly, not everyone entering into healthcare has to launch into a high-intensity environment like a pediatric ICU. You can start at one level of intensity, and then move around as time goes on and you’re paying attention to what’s going on inside of you. The breadth of healthcare contexts is one of the beauties of the field. I can be a nurse in so many contexts.

At the end of this Zoom call, I confess that I worried a bit if I had been too sober in my perspective about going into healthcare, and if this might scare some of these young people away. But at the end of the day, I think it’s more important than ever that we learn to be more honest and realistic about the promises we make to younger generations about what future dreams might look like. Or at the very least, that we both encourage – and challenge – them to think outside the typical definitions of “meaningful work” that “helps others.” Eleven years in bedside ICU nursing have taught me that most days don’t fall within the typical definitions I once held when I first started out.

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