I’m a nurse. Every day at work somebody is in crisis.
Every. Single. Day.
People have life threatening injuries and illnesses. People experience suicidal ideation and sometimes act on those thoughts. People experience delirium, dementia and psychosis – they lose touch with reality. People behave in unexpected and challenging ways.
All of these people are in crisis. They are having the worst day(s) of their life.
When you are part of the clinical team trying to help out these people it’s always useful to acknowledge and clarify the nature of the person’s crisis. It’s surprising what the individual’s perception of the crisis is. I’ve met a person who was desperately unwell – ICU unwell – who’s subjective crisis was that the cat was home alone without anyone to feed it. That was the crisis she wanted me to respond to. I’ve met quite a few people who need urgent medical/surgical interventions, but who perceive their biggest crisis as being unable to smoke a cigarette right now. I’ve had the peculiar privilege of spending time with people who have survived suicide attempts, who have experienced a crisis related to abuse, financial problems, relationship breakdown, and loss of job/role/independence/sense-of-self. An existential crisis in mind, body and spirit.
All of these people are in crisis. It is their crisis.
It is important to ascribe ownership. The nurse/midwife/physician/other clinician is not experiencing the crisis; they are responding to the crisis. We (the clinicians) have not been immunised against crises, but we do have the responsibility to do whatever we can to not get overwhelmed by them. Also, truth of the matter is, I’m not sure how long you would last if you responded to every day at work as an adrenaline-filled, too-busy-to-wee, emotional rollercoaster. That be the road to burnout and breakdown, my friend.
So, what do we do?
We use Jedi Mind Tricks, pithy sayings and clinical supervision. That’s what we do.
I’ve written about clinical supervision before (here and here). Despite the name, it’s not about scrutiny. Clinical supervision is about reflecting on clinical practice with a trusted colleague, and asking simple questions of yourself: what did I do?; what were the outcomes?; how did I feel?; what lessons did I learn?.
The idea of clinical supervision is to acquire and refine clinical skills.
A lot of us use and repeat pithy sayings such as the ED adage: “In the event of a cardiac arrest [or any other patient crisis for that matter], the first pulse you should take is your own.”
If you recognise your own anxiety you’re more capable of managing it. Intentional slow breathing is an excellent intervention for this. You can do it while you’re scanning the patient/file/environment.
It is not a crisis. A crisis is when there’s a fire, storm-surge, tsunami, earthquake or explosion that requires evacuation of staff and patients. If the hospital is not being evacuated it’s not a crisis. It’s just another day at work.
Jedi Mind Tricks
The other thing I like to do when feeling anxious is impersonate a calm person. It’s like a Jedi mind trick. “This not the anxious nurse you’re looking for. This is a calm nurse.”
When impersonating a calm person I conjure-up a person who was a CNC when I was a student nurse at the Royal Adelaide Hospital. Part of the apprenticeship model of nursing education at the time was to give students experience in RN roles. I had been thrown into the Team Leader role on a day when the neuro ward was especially busy. There were emergency admissions, a stack of post-op patients – two of whom were really unwell, a person dying in the side room, and an inexperienced unqualified overwhelmed drongo (me) coordinating the whole thing. We were in trouble. We needed more nurses and a proper team leader.
I sought-out the CNC – a smart-as-a-whip young woman not much older than me (i was quite youngish 25 years ago). The CNC spent all of about 5 minutes with me prioritising the ward’s workflow:
- “First things first. No need to shower/clean anyone unless they’re incontinent.” There goes about 50% of the morning’s workload in an instant.
- “Don’t bother with routine 4-hourly obs unless the person looks unwell. Only the post-op patients and the clinically unwell patients need their obs done.” There goes another 10% of the work.
- “Let’s get Fiona (the most experienced and skilled nurse on the shift) to look after the two dodgy post-op patients and nobody else.” The biggest concern was instantly taken care of.
- “Bring all the nurses in here (a cramped nurses station overlooking 2 bays of 6 patients each) and tell them the plan. Make sure they all drink water and coordinate their breaks.” Got it. To look after the patients you need to look after the nurses.
- “After you’ve told the nurses the plan, tell the patients/visitors who aren’t critically unwell the plan. They’ll understand we’re abnormally busy if we tell them.” Open, honest communication? Who’d have thought?
- “Slow down your breathing. Use your humour. You’ll be fine. Come and grab me if you need.” My racing thoughts slowed. Panic evaporated.
We, nurses and patients alike, had a good shift. All the vital stuff was done. It wasn’t a crisis. It was a day at work.
I haven’t seen that CNC (her name is Lee Madden) since 1992, but I think of her every now and then. Whenever I see a crisis unfolding or see/feel anxiety rising, I wonder, “What would a calm person do?” and conjure an image of Lee floating serenely into the space. I channel Lee’s reassuring smile and clear understanding of priorities, and do my best to behave in the way she modelled to an impressionable overwhelmed student nurse.
Crisis? What crisis? I’m impersonating a calm person.
As always, you’re welcome to leave comments below.
Paul McNamara, 5th September 2015
Short URL: meta4RN.com/crisis