Mary S., a cum laude graduate of Duke University's nursing school, has over 35 years of experience as an Registered Nurse (RN). Although she has worked in many practice settings with a variety of populations, she notes that her work in psychiatric nursing stands out as her most memorable role.
Her original reason for becoming a nurse was to "help sick people, to learn more about the human body and its interaction with the environment and to find a career offering job security and good pay." Nursing seemed like the perfect match. Mary became a psychiatric nurse in 1986.
"Psychiatric nursing jobs badly needed to be filled during the 1980s, and it seemed to be an interesting field," she said. "I worked as a staff nurse in a state mental health facility and later as a psychiatric nurse practitioner in a privately owned mental health hospital. Like any other nursing units, the work at the state hospital was very physical. I had to move patients, keep them clean and feed and administer medications.
"Most of the state hospital patients were there under court order, mainly because they refused to take their medications, which is their right. It was heartbreaking to see people, living such hard lives, come to the hospital, become stabilized and then see them come back a few months later for the same reason."
When she later worked at a private hospital as a nurse practitioner, she discovered a world of difference in her new job. "For one thing, there was a huge change in the patient population," she noted. "At the state hospital, the patients' mental illnesses were more severe. Most private hospital patients were there on a voluntary basis, and once they finished their treatment period, we usually didn't see them again."
Her role at the private hospital involved far less physical work. "As a nurse practitioner, I was more involved with the treatment component. I would participate in group therapy sessions, counsel patients individually and was a key member of care planning strong treatment teams."
At the private hospital, the staff had time for in-depth work with patients, and care team meetings were a daily occurrence.
"Sometimes the pace is a lot slower than what you're used to in most medical settings. You can have long periods of quiet, only to be interrupted by horrifying realities."
Mary's greatest reward as a psychiatric nurse was that no matter how tired or frustrated she was at times, she played an important role in helping people achieve their goals, even if it was just to help their pain go away.
"The best way to learn is to help others, and I learned a lot about myself and useful coping skills when I reached my own limits," Mary said.
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