End of term exams – anxiety and panic attacks

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Studying day and night for four exams; sociology, psychology, biology and nursing skills, stopping only to go to the loo or  shout down the phone at sales people, almost broke me. Thankfully the boys were revising for their exams too, so they understood and kept out of my way, tapping on my bedroom door only to ask if I’d like a coffee. Wine was the answer!

Pre computer, the worldwide web (www) and wi-fi, I was struggling to get my head around the biology terminology in the extra-large books from the course reading list. However, when rummaging in the sale box at my local bookshop, I found a pop-up biology book for kids. Yay. Job done! Nevertheless, I’m not sure my suggestion to add this book to future course reading lists was taken seriously.

Still, no matter how much I’d studied, outside the exam halls, I felt the familiar onset of palpitations, sweating, tingling fingers and toes. I’d read that this was the blood rushing to where it was needed ie the brain and large muscles, to activate the body for fight or flight*. So, I had this thing where, by using breathing techniques and distraction or focussing (I hadn’t heard of Mindfulness then), if I could stop the tingling before it got up to my wrists or ankles, I could prevent a full-blown panic attack. That day — it wasn’t working.

Standing rigid (freeze*) as the other two hundred and odd students found their way around me was a bit awkward. Head down, trying to look nonchalant, I rummaged in my bag and dug out my tissues, liberally soaked with lavender oil; known to be another stress reliever. I desperately sniffed in copious amounts of the stuff and I wasn’t taking any chances as I dabbed the tissue on my wrists, under my nose and under my ears? The well-used tissue was then shoved up my sleeve so I could inhale at leisure during the exams. Who cares that I smelt like my gran’s underwear drawer?

Well, guess who passed all four exams? Okay, the highest mark was just sixty- eight per cent but I’d only gone and done it. Now, this really was a big deal because, with six poor GCE’s, I’d always thought I wasn’t very clever. When teachers tell you often enough that you’re thick, it cuts to the quick and you start to believe it.

On results day, the queue for the public telephone in the student union room snaked down the corridor as excited students waited to give the good news to parents or partners. Despite the fact my tummy was screaming out for food, I too wanted to share the good news. I called the boys’ dad at work and I’d barely got the words “I passed all……” out when he snapped “You knew you would, smart arse. Anyway, did you take twenty pounds out of my pocket this morning?” I said I had, and he hung up. I was hurt, angry and mortified, but carried on chatting cheerily into the phone, while my heart was breaking and until my ten pence ran out.

Note to self: “Don’t let the man bring you down.” — Maya Angelou

*Flight, fight or freeze is the body’s response to perceived threat or danger and which prepares the body for flight or fight; the physiological and psychological response to stress prepares the body to react to the danger.

Patients loved good student nurses

Patients loved good student nurses cos we had time to chat with them

Patients and nurses loved good student nurses
Everyone loves good student nurses

Good student nurses might not be as skilled or knowledgeable as the professionals, but they’re very much loved by patients. They’re a breath of fresh air. Most of them want to help, whether it’s plumping up your pillows or making you that longed for cup of tea.

Have you ever been in hospital, maybe bursting to go the loo and you couldn’t get the nurse’s attention? Or your chin was on your chest and your neck had locked because your pillows were skew-whiff? Hmm, me too, on more than one occasion. And I get that nurses are really busy, I know, because I was one. But manys a time I could see them huddled round the nurse’s desk, laughing and stuffing their faces with chocolates.

Seriously, some general nurses work really hard, running up and down their wards, trying to fit in everyone’s needs. And it seems impossible some days. But Hallelujah, several times a year, they get a group of student nurses, many of whom want to learn. Woe betide if you just want to hang around looking like a nurse. You had work to do, and nurses couldn’t be bothered with hangers on.

I’d wanted to become a mental health nurse and this general nursing wasn’t what I’d signed up for. However, if you were a good student, willing to learn and share the teams’ mission, they’d support you, which made it easier. You’d help them with most anything they asked, within your capabilities. Even the most dreaded tasks.

Me and patient’s bodily functions

General nursing student

I wasn’t looking forward to this particular placement because, not only did I dislike East London and that hospital, it was also a general male ward. And generally where you get all men, you get burps, farts, snot and phlegm, in no particular order.

I gagged when I was asked to collect mucus — just at the thought of it. But actually holding a sputum cup half-full with sticky green bodily fluid had me dry-retching and reaching for the ladies. I dreaded the day I had to hold male poo samples.

A lovely elderly chap called Derek was the first patient I saw. He had prostate cancer along with other age-related ailments. Derek chuckled and winked at me when he saw me screwing my nose up. I couldn’t help but show my disgust at the foul smells of half-full bedpans and commodes. I realised I was being unprofessional, and it didn’t take long for me to become accustomed to the odour on the ward.

Patients I adored

General nurses were always busy
General nurses were always busy

Derek loved telling me stories about his life during the war and how, once home with his lovely young wife, they’d never spent a day apart. He also told me that his wife was on another ward down the corridor and he missed her terribly.

Before I went off shift one day, I managed to get Doris’ bed wheeled right next to Derek’s for the afternoon, despite moans from the nurses. I got to see why they never spent time apart; holding hands, whispering and giggling like teenagers and dipping custard creams into each other’s tea. I felt so proud that I was able to help in some small way. I’d honestly never had such a humbling and emotional experience.

Ah! Derek’s bed had been moved the next morning. I asked a male nurse where he was. With a nod and eyes rolling upward, he said: “He’s gone upstairs.” Oh, I thought and before I asked anything more, the nurse said “He’s dead.” Just like that!

I dashed the ladies to dry my eyes before looking in on Doris and her family, to pass on my condolences. I wasn’t sure I was at the right curtains when I heard laughter. So, I stood for a while, then Doris noticed my tiny shiny shoes and called me in. The family thank me for the humanity shown the previous day, and told me how much it had meant to both parents. They’d had their final chuckles and they were both at peace in their own way now.

Students have the time to listen

Most patients love good students on the ward because sometimes they’re the only ones who have time to stop and chat. They’d ask patients about their needs and wants, and try to help. Sometimes patients just wanted someone to listen to them, and students fitted the bill. While nurses ran ragged. They’d administer medication and attend ward rounds, while writing notes, and updating no end of needless care plans.

Phones rang out, begging to be picked up. It might have been someone wanting to speak to a poorly patient, or results from other departments?

Patients had many needs

Nursing students supported their colleagues while learning

See, most patients had more underlying health problems than just the issue came in with. This tends to happen unfortunately, particularly in large cities like London. It then becomes difficult for care teams to discharge patients in a timely manner because:

  • patients who didn’t speak or understand English needed interpreters
  • some patients needed support with housing and benefit issues
  • other patients couldn’t go home because their accommodation had to be repaired of adapted prior to discharge
  • often we had homeless patients who required a lot of input
  • others — just didn’t want to go home either because they were lonely or didn’t have any family around them
  • we also had patients with mental health problems and were awaiting a psych assessment
  • at least 25% of general hospital beds are occupied by people living with dementia. On average people with dementia stay more than twice as long in hospital then other patients aged over 65, said the National Audit Office, 2016.

Bed-blockers (hospital speak) are a huge problem for the NHS, and I can’t see it being ‘solved’ any time soon. Patients still need care and support from our busy nurses, while multidisciplinary teams scratch their heads. They too have large caseloads, and no doubt it’s hard to put systems in place so that patients can go ‘home’.

In the meantime, nurses made hundreds of phone calls to the various support agencies and social services, while still caring for patients. This take them away from the very job they trained for; looking after patients. No wonder both patients and staff loved and appreciated good student nurses on their wards.

Over to you

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What’s your experience, if any, of student nurses? Do you think nurses have a tough time on the wards? I’d be interested to hear what you think, and I’m looking forward to your comments or questions.

3 years study to become a mental health nurse

Within weeks of starting Uni, I learned just how stupid some people are! How many lack personal insight and have no idea of personal space or people skills. I was able to study my fellow students as they shoved their way through the doors I was entering and jumping ahead of me to get the seats at the front of lectures or lessons.

Now, I know I was really skinny but trying to get two people through the narrow single doorways at Uni was nigh on impossible and, if they thought I wanted to bring attention to myself by sitting anywhere within a ten-foot radius of any lecturer, they were sadly mistaken. Those lardy arses who bulldozed past me, snorting, kissing their teeth or tutting were welcome to their prime seats.

Having only recently recovered from a lengthy psychotic episode, I still felt really shy, nervous even, and constantly prayed to someone who’d help me stave off the ever-impending anxiety attacks. I’d sit somewhere in the middle of the halls and quickly avert my eyes or pretend I was taking notes if I caught a whiff of a question coming my way from the attending lecturer.

I was so busy monitoring my pulse and breathing, I probably missed half the lectures anyway.  Still, most of the lecturers appeared to be reading straight from books, which meant I could catch up by going through the same book or reading any handouts during breaks or at home.

What I hadn’t bargained for was the seminars and classes, which normally lasted between one or two hours and, where we were expected to work in smaller groups, normally around eighteen to twenty students. We’d be further split up to around 2-4 people, to discuss some topic or other, then complete a written task before presenting our understanding back to the group

Or, because of the sweet packet rustlers, the stupid questions and other disruptors, we often had to complete the task at home then feedback to the larger group. Oh, my word! If I’d known that I would have to stand up. In front of everyone. And speak? I would never have applied for the course.

No way was I making an absolute arse of myself. I practised for hours in front of a full-length mirror at home, where I’d present my findings calmly and with a flourish, maintaining good eye contact and waving my hands theatrically. Cracked it; I could do this.

Huh! For all that, the first time I presented to the class, I dropped the acetates I was relying on to distract my peers as I spoke. Taking in huge gulps of air as I bent down to retrieve said slides, I could feel the heat rising up my neck and hear my heartbeat pulsating in my ears. Then I swayed and felt dizzy, increasing my anxiety tenfold. ‘Please do not let me have a panic attack’! Though not sure who I was asking. By now, I could see my heart leaping out beneath my clothes like Jim Carrey’s character in The Mask and felt sure everyone else could see it.

It felt like an age as I raised my head and saw my well-meaning contemporaries smiling, encouraging me, willing me to get over the finishing line, so I began. With trembling hands, a fake smile and what felt like a massive boulder in my stomach, I managed to stutter my way through my presentation and answer some easy questions.

There was no theatrical waving and no calm, just relief when it was over and I was able to watch my peers presenting. Not sure I should be glad but, I could see I wasn’t the only anxious student in the room. Those following me muttered, mumbled, lacked eye contact, had hives creeping up from their chest and for some, their presentation wasn’t even relevant.

Note to self: “Today I will not stress over things I can’t control.”