How many times has one of your friends or family monopolized on the fact that you were a nurse? "Hey Sis, so my poop is green.. what's wrong with me?"; "Hey best friend! So the other day I was at the club and, well you know me, drinking a bit too much and I blacked out. What could have caused that? You think I could have a brain tumor?! Oh my god, it's probably a brain tumor, I knew it!"; "Hey Mike! What's up bro! So, you know that Rebecca chick we met at the bar that one night? Well, I did some things and.. well long story short, I have a rash... down there." Sound familiar? Well it does to me!
My mom is a doctorate prepared nurse and I have always gone to her whenever something has been wrong. One night when I was a kid, I remember waking up to excruciating pain in my calf (my first Charlie horse that I can remember) and the first thing I did was screamed for her because I thought I was about to die! To my dismay, she would always tell me "Steven, you're such a hypochondriac, there is nothing wrong with you", "You need to stop reading my medical textbooks, I think they're really getting to you". I was always so mad that she refused to help me and that she would dismiss my "serious" medical problems. But low and behold, 10 years later, here I am, still alive and now a nurse myself! She must have known that I was just a "hypochondriac". It probably didn't help that I spent all grade school and high school reading her nursing and other medical textbooks.
But I never realized how aggravating that must be. I always thought that she should feel flattered and proud! This woman holds the knowledge to human suffering, to ailments that debilitate people and cause pain and agony; the knowledge and skill to ameliorate or even cure these ailments and to alleviate the suffering and agony that afflict such people. That's arguably acting in the role of God (if you chose to believe God of course)! So why would she continually dismiss my pleas for help? Not only that, but when other people would approach her outside of work she would give a drawn out sigh, a yawn and a roll of the eyes. Why was she so annoyed? In my eyes this is what nurses are supposed to do and she was a nurse! Additionally, when she would get sick, I would see her freak out and go to colleagues asking for their help and panicking herself! To be honest, it seemed to me as though she wasn't a great nurse and completely disregarded her duties as a nurse and acting as a hypocrite! It wasn't until I went to nursing school myself that I started to get a taste of my own medicine, so to speak.
Fast forward from then to 2009, I was just entering my first year of my BScN program. It was an extremely exciting time for me, I had always looked up to my mom (well, she's actually my stepmom!) and I had, ever since meeting her, thought that I wanted to be a nurse, or at least do a degree in nursing. And in my mind, soon enough, I wouldn't need to confide in her when I got sick, I'd be able to help myself. What joy of being fully independent in every way!
During my first year I noticed something happening more and more frequently. Once my friends got wind of my undergraduate choice I found more and more people approaching me for medical advice, even some people I had not talked to in years! Initially I was flattered, feeling all of the things I imagined my mother would feel when she was approached for advice. But then it progressed more and more and I noticed myself giving those same long drawn out sighs, yawns and eye rolls that my mother used to give to me and other people who approached her for advice.
What was happening to me?! Was I becoming less compassionate and ignoring my professional and ethical responsibilities as a future nurse? It really hit me and made me question whether or not I truly was compassionate one night when I was staying at my significant other's house. I was abruptly awakened from my sleep to hear "I think I am having a heart attack! Steven! Help me!" To which I responded "you're fine, go back to sleep" as I dozed right back off into my comfortable realm of dreams. As you can imagine, come morning, I was not the most popular boyfriend!
After that incident I decided to take a chapter from the parts of my nursing education that I found to be completely useless, and self reflect on why I was feeling this way when people approached me for advice. Time and time again people would approach me for, what I thought, was stupid reasons and would ask me ridiculous questions with insufficient detail. "My friend has constipation, what could it be?" Hmm, I don't know, probably 20 different things with the dearth of information you just provided me! And repetitive questions, like "so is this serious?", "Yeah, okay I will see my doctor, but is this serious?" And of course, there's my favorite 'ask for advice but completely disregard what I'm advising'. "So, you're saying that I could have an STD? Well, WebMD says that it could just be the flu. It's probably just the flu, I don't need to get tested, I have unprotected sex all the time and I've never caught an STD before."
And no matter how many times I tell people to see a doctor or not to ask me things, they continue to come back and ask me things. And surprisingly, other people in my program have come to me and asked me what's wrong with them! People who were in the same year and had taken the same classes came to me and tried to steal doctor advice from someone in the same position as them. But what's worse is I have done it to my friends! Famous and most embarrassing example was in my third year of university I was afraid that I had a bowel obstruction. I hadn't had a bowel movement in 3 days and was in so much pain and agony. I was unresponsive to all the laxatives I could get my hands on, I had an enema with no results and my bowel sounds were extremely hyperactive but yet, I had no stool coming out! I called my best friend who was also in my class but previously trained as an RPN (or LPN depending on which jurisdiction you are in). I put a lot of trust in her as a friend and as a nurse and so next thing you know I am sitting on the toilet, with a condom on my index finger in my right hand and my cellphone in my left hand saying "okay, so how far do I need to insert before I will feel any ****. And you've done this to your patients before, right? It's safe?"
As you can imagine, in hindsight, I felt pretty embarrassed the next day when my body exploded with feces. But why did I need to confide in other people? Why couldn't I just handle things myself, independently as I always imagined I would? In fact, it's not like I wasn't good at critical thinking and problem solving. In fact, during my consolidation in the ER I had diagnosed two patients correctly when the attending physician had no idea what was wrong! I was always reading medical texts and always studying and I, more than anyone else, should have known what was wrong with me and how to fix it!
Reflecting on this whole phenomenon I have learned that when we are sick, we are scared, and when we're scared we turn to people who we look up to and trust for advice. Western societies especially are prone to socializing people to be brave and independent. Don't ask for help, don't show fear and don't complain. That is, I feel, interwoven in our society and in our behavior as people. Thus, the easiest way for us to deal with our emotions when we are scared and sick is to just revert back to a simpler time when we were children and depended on our parents for everything. We place health care professionals or people we deem 'wiser' than ourselves in place of our parents and we want them to make our decisions for us.
Contrary to my views as a kid, being a nurse does not exempt you from this normal human behavior. What we have to remember is that we are all human and humans are not infallible. When we are sick we need to not lose our trust in ourselves but we must acknowledge that it is okay to ask for help and to tell people that we are scared. Because ultimately we seek help from one another because we are scared, we don't 100% know what is wrong with us and we fear the unknown. We need to be open and honest about this with ourselves and with others. We also need to remember that when someone else is sick they look to us with great respect and trust and we must not treat them disrespectfully, no matter how frustrating and annoying they may be. We are all human and we all get scared. We need to validate their feelings and tell them it's okay to be scared and it's okay to ask for help. If we just simply validate their feelings instead of being annoyed with them, we can go a long way.
So next time someone comes to you for advice, simply confront them with your limitations of not being their primary clinician, tell them what they can do and, most importantly, validate their fear. See how it works out for you!