Why I became a mental health nurse

You might wonder why I became a mental health nurse

Coloured image of fast paced ward with a nurse in blue

The first eighteen months of our uni course included the study of general nursing, aka big words and boring. We also attended eight week placements on various general wards, the thought of which, made my anxiety soar. I’d wanted to become a mental health nurse and this general stuff wasn’t what I’d signed up for. I thought it would be all mental health learning. Doh!

Placements were announced. Students made a mad dash for the boards as they wanted to see where they’d be for the next eight weeks. I got ‘Gynaecology & Urology’. Urhg! I couldn’t think of anything worse.

Mixed feelings on my first day

Mail mental health nurse with stethoscope round his neck
Male Nursing Assistant — Image by Freestock.com

I was so excited that ridiculously early Monday morning, in my new blue and white striped uniform, neatly cinched at my then skinny waist. I felt so proud of my upside down watch and the obligatory shiny new black DM’s. On arrival on the ward, the nurses were all welcoming, smiley and I instantly felt relaxed. They allocated a friendly male nursing assistant, Phil, to show me around the ward and explain what was expected of me.

Phil was a bit on the cheeky side and had a good relationship with both the nurses and the patients. Nevertheless, he was lazy and would habitually try to fob menial and yukky tasks onto gullible students like me. He’d soon know that while I didn’t mind sharing the load, I wasn’t his lackey. I was a mature student in need of certain nursing skills, as well as helping carry out his nursing assistant tasks. The mixed wards shocked me on this placement, something which was inevitably embarrassing for female patients.

I’ve forgotten how many times I gagged

Image of hospital food on the closed ward.
a typical lunch on the closed ward

The first few weeks were all about making perfect hospital beds, taking patient observations and handing out the smelly, drab looking lunches or dinners. Urhg! How anyone could eat, what with the competing wee and poo smells, you also had to contend with the smell of stale blood and disinfectant. I gagged and retched many times while on this ward.

Due to the nature of this ward, we spent a lot of time peering at and up lopsided vaginas, including those of a teenager. Yes, doctors (and nurses) were shocked to discover she actually had two vaginas, wombs and cervixes. We’d also scrutinise all manner of penises, some with lumps and sores, one bent at an unusual angle. Peyronie’s disease, I’d learnt, is a tissue disorder; where hard fibrous lumps grow in the penis, causing it to bend.

While perhaps I shouldn’t mention it, ladies and gentlemen, if at no other time, when you’re due to go into hospital, please attend to your hygiene down there. Unclean — urgh! It’s really not pleasant and you’ll be the butt of the nursing team’s jokes for ages.

Ouch, that could have hurt

A grinning Phil told me that morning I had to to remove a catheter. The patient was a handsome young male patient. “I’ll be back to check before you know it,” he teased as he sauntered off. On his return, “Done!” I smiled, and with eyes agog, mouth agape, he paled. I was grinning now, ‘cos he believed I’d carried out his instructions.

As students, we all knew, you didn’t carry out such tasks on your own if you’ve never done it before – so I didn’t. I had never carried out this procedure, so how could I know I had to deflate the balloon before removing the tube from the penis? Oooh, I could have damaged that young man.

As weeks passed, I was beginning to understand now, how we put all the theory learnt during lectures into our practice. A while back, I couldn’t understand why we’d spent a morning learning about all the different types of poo. I mean, poo is just that, right?

How many types of poo have you heard of?

Portable commode, on wheels.
Portable commode

Nope! Poo comes in all shapes and sizes, colours and textures. Who knew that there’s 7 types of poo? Most of us would’ve had a rabbit poo or a smooth snake poo, which are quite obvious to name. But, there was one type of poo we’d probably never come across during our mental health nursing. This was fecal vomiting, which is serious and can happen when a person has an obstruction (usually in the small bowels).

Skip this if bit you’re squeamish — Unfortunately, this beautiful lady, Anna who was only forty-six, had both colon and bowel cancer. The disease had spread to the lymph nodes and she wasn’t expected to recover. This day, she’d called me over and, looking pained and very embarrassed, asked for the commode. I trundled in as quickly as possible and helped her onto the wonky commode, using my foot as a brake.

No sooner had Anna sat down, she pointed madly at the sick bowl sitting nearby. Too late; she furiously projectile vomited, propelling runny green poo all over the bed and down her clothes. At the same time, I could hear wet “flarps” hitting the commode, and I wasn’t sure who was more embarrassed.

Anna was mortified and kept apologising as I stood behind her rubbing her back and saying “it’s okay, not to worry. You’re okay.” All the while my eyes and nostrils stung with the acrid smelling burps and farts, and I gagged silently as I could. How the nurses laughed when I reached the sluice room with cardboard containers of the stuff, gagging with every step.

Bodily fluids and penises

Picture of young female student mental health nurse in blue tunic and navy trousers
Student nurse, feeling very privileged

I felt for Anna, really, I did. My heart so went out to her and I burst into tears. I was disappointed and annoyed with myself for feeling ‘icky’ about it all. This poor lady had gone through hell.

Although urology and gynae was mostly ‘icky’, fecal vomit was definitely the worst. Yet I still feel somewhat privileged to have been able to support a patient in some small way, during probably one of the worst times in her short life.

I was sad to leave this placement because the staff were amazing at their jobs and they taught me well. I always felt included in the daily chats and when they shared their chocolates, given by patients and their families. Of course they laughed when they saw me heaving at the sight of bodily fluids or agog at odd shaped penises. Nope, general nursing definitely wasn’t for me!

Did I learn anything?

Image of a female mental health nurse waiting for a schizophrenic patient to come out of the shower.

Indeed I did. I learnt how to make perfect hospital corners, empty bedpans and clean up rivers of poo, without gagging in front of patients. I also learnt how not to laugh, despite the other nurse’s hysterics, when I had to remove a catheter from huge penis. Honestly, you could have played baseball with it. I also mastered the art of giving bed baths like a pro, without going bright red each time.

My shiny new Dm’s were tested to their limits, having ran around the wards thousands of times, at breakneck speeds. My lovely blue and white uniform got tighter as I enjoyed the sweets and chocolates gifted by patients. Oh, and my homemade biscuits I’d taken in to ‘bribe the nurses into liking me’.

My upside down watch was used often, probably more often than normal I suppose, because I had to keep repeating BP, pulse and resps – to ensure they were correct. I was terrified I’d make a mistake and someone would die because of me, in fact, I had nightmares about it!

I didn’t realise how much I’d miss the patients and the relationships we built during such a short period, and the times we’d laughed and cried together. I felt so humbled by this experience. These lovely people shared their life stories and their innermost fears with me, some of which they’ve never been able to talk about. This is exactly what reminded me that I wanted to be a mental health nurse! I’d made the right choice.

Over to you

What do you think?

How do you react to bodily fluids and functions? Are you a general nurse and practice in this area? Could you ever work as a general nurse? I’m interested in reading your comments and I’ll happily answer any questions.

Related blogs: Why I became a mental health nurse (1). The ramblings of a student mental health nurse (2).

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