Registered Nurse Journal by Bev Chambers July/August 2012
In 1981, with four years of nursing experience under my belt, I applied to study midwifery in Scotland, a post-RN program that was not available in Ontario. In order to practise as a registered nurse in the UK, I had to work two months as a student on the surgical floor at victoria hospital in Kirkcaldy. I was not looking forward to this as I had already worked as an RN in Canada, but I did it because I was determined to go to midwifery school.
Scotland’s health-care system was very different from what I was used to in Canada. In particular, victoria hospital’s procedures were outdated; students were not allowed to read patient charts, and the head nurse (or Sister) would delegate tasks during the day. Although the nursing practices were unusual to me, I learned about the value of community among patients.
One day, I was assigned to care for eight older men in one room. They conversed with each other, and were a friendly lot. I could not always understand their Fife accent, and they teased me about my Canadian twang. I had to give one of the gentlemen a suppository. There was one large bathroom on the whole unit for all to share. It was quite a distance away, so I decided to put a commode by the bed and pull the curtains. The appropriate interval of time passed, and I returned. “Mr. D,” I said. “Did the suppository work?” Another voice called out from the other side of the room. “Och aye,” Mr. D’s roommate shouted. “It’s been heavy gunning over there, like the Battle of Waterloo!” Everyone doubled over with laughter, including Mr. D.
Each ward at victoria hospital had a small dining room, and patients who were ambulatory would walk to it, sit at its tables, eat together and have a grand chat. Often, the most mobile patients would sit with bedridden patients to keep them company, and sometimes help set up the tray.
After witnessing the degree to which patients were socializing, I realized the importance of laughter and a sense of community among patients. At school, I learned about therapeutic conversations with my patients, and how most of those conversations should have a serious purpose. humour was not something I was encouraged to use. My experience in Scotland challenged that premise. We now know that laughter is beneficial, releases endorphins and helps reduce stress.
I never learned to encourage patients to mingle. Infection control was always foremost in my mind. But these patients demonstrated the value of peer support long before it was popular. The people of Scotland humbled me with their generosity and warmth. And they made me realize patients have far more to teach us than we can teach them.
Bev Chambers is a Registered Nurse.