By his own admission, it took Arnold Relman, former editor of the New England Journal of Medicine, until age 90 to realize the importance of nurses in providing quality medical care. It took me until a week after starting my internship. My first rotation was on 3 Orange, the unit for medically complex children (including many ex-preemies). In many ways, medical school had not prepared me well for residency. I had never ordered feeds for a healthy baby, much less one with a 27-item problem list. My first night on call, covering the entire team, I was asked to order a refill on a medication for someone else’s patient. I checked my sign out list and wrote (with a pen, on paper) the order; 10 minutes later, the nurse paged me to double check whether that was really what I wanted to order. It wasn’t: I had mistakenly ordered a soundalike medication, at a dose that would have been harmful if administered. Embarrassed, I returned to the unit to correct the order. I made some comment about making a rookie mistake. The nurse just smiled and said, “It won’t be the last, but don’t worry because we’re all looking out for each other.”
Relman, after being hospitalized for 10 weeks after a fall, wrote a column for the New York Review of Books about his experience, in which he said, “I had never before understood how much good nursing care contributes to patients’ safety and comfort, especially when they are very sick or disabled. This is a lesson all physicians and hospital administrators should learn. When nursing is not optimal, patient care is never good.”
Amen. Over the years, I (and my colleagues) have been bailed out by nurses on occasions too numerous to count. Mostly not because they caught errors – though in the era before computerized order management that was certainly important. It’s the subtle change in a child’s behavior pattern that made the nurse call me to re-evaluate a patient who was developing hepatic encephalopathy. It’s the funny movement that the consultant dismissed, which turned out to be decorticate posturing in a post-craniotomy patient. It’s the question about why I selected a particular test that made me think through and decide on a different one that was just as good but less traumatic for the patient. It’s putting a teenager with perplexing symptoms in a room and commenting, “She’s acting just like the aspirin ingestions we used to see,” arriving at the correct diagnosis hours before the physicians. It’s the insight about family dynamics that allowed me to address concerns I might never have identified on my own. The list is long.
It’s impossible to overstate my gratitude for all that the many nurses I have worked with over the years have done for our patients. Their job is intellectually, physically, and emotionally challenging, with rewards that are hardly commensurate with the demands. And I also appreciate what they have done for me: for my education, my professional development, and my job satisfaction. We share food on the night shift, we laugh and cry together, we brag about and complain about our families, we encourage each other, we look out for each other. Those interactions, those shared experiences, are the up button on the mood elevator.
Kids deserve the best. With our nurses at Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin, they have it.