Nurses: the good, the bad and the difference between them

Over the last two years, I have spent a significant amount of time in hospitals in L.A. and Chicago because of medical crises with various members of my extended family. And no matter how well- or little-known these hospitals are, one fact remains the same across the board: You know a good nurse the minute she/he walks into the room.

Good nurses in a hospital make me weak in the knees. For starters, they smile at their patients with the implicit understanding that you are members of the same species. Good nurses greet their patients by name and look them in the eye when they ask, “How are you doing?” They then respond to their patients’ answers as if they actually heard them. Good nurses possess an air of confidence that does not refer to power.

Unfortunately, just as there are bad patients, there are also bad nurses. Bad nurses are like overworked and underpaid baggage handlers -- with your family member being the suitcase. I descend to a Darwinian “survival of the fittest” level of strategy when I encounter a bad nurse.

I once said to a bad nurse, “Oh, wow! I really like your clogs!” and then described in detail why her clogs were so cool -- even though I think clogs look like something that should be worn in prison yards. But my dad needed a pain pill and this gal needed yet another push to give him one. Her clogs were my way in. Worse yet, it worked.

No such luck, though, with the Super Bad nurses. They too operate at a Darwinian level and they can smell my fear. Their message back to me, laser beamed from their eyes directly into mine, is, “I’m on to you, honey, and your act ain’t working with me.”

Undaunted, I’ll ask, “So, do you have any kids?”

What differentiates good nurses from bad ones are the personal qualities they possess before they even enter a nursing program. Are they smart, careful, observant, precise, compassionate? These are attributes that can’t be taught. Most important, though: Do they have a first-rate short-term memory?

Nurses need short-term memories with stratospheric storage capacity. They are continually interrupted by patients, family members and other staff with questions and requests. I can’t even remember if I’ve taken my calcium pill for the day, so I’d hate to be trusted with remembering whether or not I gave someone morphine. “Well, I think I did” is not the zone you want a nurse to be operating in. A nurse’s memory is vital in the dictionary sense of the word.

With good nurses you have a trust and rapport that is transcendent. They take the lead with the patient. Their nursing education is a launching pad not just for their career, but for their passion.

(And by the way, if I flatter a good nurse, we both know it’s sincere.)

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