2011 marked my 10th year as a nurse. Those years have been marked by personal and professional accomplishments. However, this was not always the case. In fact, my nursing career was almost never a career to begin with.
After graduating with honors, I had a great sense of pride and confidence. Perhaps I had too much self-confidence. As a result, I failed miserably with my nursing board exam. Worse, I blamed everything and anything but myself. Having failed this exam almost cost me my job and the opportunity to become a commissioned officer in the U.S. Navy. My mentality relied heavily on the fact that I was going to be a nurse. I intended to be an outstanding nurse, just like the hundreds of outstanding nurses of Asian/Filipino descent who came before me.
Yet, I assumed I could pass the nursing board exam without really studying or working for it. Well, lesson learned. An expensive lesson, I should add. Had I not eventually passed my nursing board exam, I would have been looking at an employer recoupment of about $20,000. Ouch! The good news is that I was able to overcome this barrier just in time.
I began my career in a military nursing at the Naval Medical Center in San Diego, and my goals were simple: learn as much as possible and don’t make mistakes with potentially dire consequences (e.g., a medication error). Not so different from civilian nursing, really!
I remember that rookie year vividly. Looking back, I am still not sure how I was able to succeed in such a demanding work environment. I was assigned as a staff nurse at a 28-bed medical-surgical unit. By far, we were the busiest nursing unit in our 250-bed facility. Every day was non-stop action. It felt like my heart rate increased by at least 10 beats per minute every time I set foot in the unit. It seemed like we never slowed down—and the tempo was dizzying. I would typically have six patients with an assistant. For any given shift, my duties would consist of AM care, vitals, assessment, medications, and procedures. I also had to coordinate MRI visits, CT consults, and X-ray availability while calling for discharge medications in pharmacy. No matter how physically and mentally prepared I tried to be, it was hard to maintain a sense of control. There were times that I was so stressed I literally made myself sick. Basic nursing skills such as prioritization of patients and critical-thinking skills were learned on the go. I wouldn’t exactly call it chaos. But it was close.
Yet, as crazy as it may sound, I actually did not mind it one bit. It’s the truth. One of the reasons was that I had great mentors around me. I used to look around our nursing unit and realized my nursing colleagues were more than willing to help, no matter what. Perhaps it was our sense of teamwork. Or it could have been our dedication to military nursing and our patients. Whatever it was, it didn’t take me long to realize that I had made the right career move. Unlike my civilian nursing colleagues, I have had the unique opportunity to care for patients who have served and are serving this great nation. It is a feeling like no other. To come in on a daily basis and know that I am part of something meaningful is incredible. This couldn’t have been more evident than after the events of September 11, 2001.
I was actually on my way to work when I heard of the terrorist attacks. Not knowing much at the time, I just remember thinking that my nursing skills were about to become a commodity, whether I was ready or not. It was a fearful and uncertain time for everyone, almost surreal to think that such an attack was even humanly possible. I just remember hearing from my supervisors, “Be ready.” There was a good chance most of us were bound for deployment overseas. Soldiers, marines, sailors, and airmen were counting on us to provide the best patient care possible under all circumstances. As it turns out, I was actually one of the nurses that ended up staying behind during the early stages of the war. Nevertheless, it was professionally fulfilling. It provided a great way for me to contribute. For the next few years, I found myself in various nursing assignments, from California to Japan. I have been blessed to grow professionally and gain a better perspective of my overall purpose as a military nurse.
Like some people find their niche in a nursing specialty like pediatrics or oncology, I have found that being a military nurse has its own advantages. I work with an outstanding team. From physicians to social workers, it is a rewarding experience to collaborate and gain a sense of unity. This is especially important as nurses and the rest of the health care team are tasked to care for patients with complex disease processes. More importantly, my service to active-duty patients and beneficiaries truly defines who I am as a nurse. Whether I am teaching a dependent spouse about healthier eating habits or holding a patient’s hand and praying with him before a major surgery, I am there to give it my all. Because, chances are, they would do the same for me. And that alone is what matters most. In a sense, we are more than just a family. We are united as one.
Of course, to say my military nursing career has been nothing but great experiences wouldn’t be entirely accurate. I can recall one incident when caring for a retired military member. He rang his call bell for assistance. When I walked in to his room, he said, “I’m sorry, but I had asked for a nurse.” I politely answered that I would be the one taking care of him for the night. He quickly replied, “No, no, no. I asked for a nurse—the one who has blonde hair, blue eyes, and wears a nice skirt.” Obviously, I could have reacted in a negative manner. Rather, I chose to remain calm and respectfully informed him that not all nurses are females with blonde hair. Somewhat perplexed, the patient quickly changed the topic and turned his attention to the television. I did not feel anger towards that particular patient; all I could think of was trying to find ways to help him understand the evolving nature of nursing, which now consists of men as well as Asian/Filipino nurses like me.
As troubling as that patient’s reaction seemed at first, I truly felt he came to realize that male nurses were more than able and capable of caring for patients like him. Though he never said so directly, I just had a feeling. And if nothing else, I know my serving as his nurse was a concrete example that contradicted his former world-view.
The common thread
Nursing is an ever-evolving profession. And changes in our health care delivery system will happen, regardless. The past 10 years of nursing have taught me valuable lessons. For one, I have learned to remain humble. I have also learned to not take things personally when it comes to patient comments. Granted, some comments are downright ignorant and hurtful. But, I believe there is a common thread and human decency in everyone. As a military nurse, I am proud to be a part of their lives. In particular, I am proud to know that I have been given ample opportunities to touch lives and care for my patients. I never imagined I would be in the position to make an impact on someone’s life. Personally, those few minutes of comforting patients during the worst of times have turned to a lifetime of personal and professional satisfaction.
Yet, as with any profession, nursing is not for everybody. I have friends and colleagues who left nursing. I think some of the more common reasons for doing so were the stress of the patient workload and the lack of support from nursing leaders. Being a minority nurse, my advice is to truly and honestly evaluate one’s dedication and intention before committing to nursing. Nursing is a great and well-respected profession, but it does come with its challenges. For example, there have been times when I feared for my safety when caring for patients with developmental delays and mental instability. In addition, minority nurses may still encounter racial and ethnic stereotypes.
Once, a patient bluntly asked if all Filipino nurses speak Tagalog among one another in front of non-Filipino patients. Taken aback, I informed her that no, that is not the case. They only speak their native language during their off-duty time. In another instance, when reporting to my new supervisor (who happened to be a minority), she said, “I can already see two things that are against you. You’re an Asian and a male.” In the U.S. Navy Nurse Corps, we value diversity and strongly feel that concept results in a better work environment for all of our valued staff members, regardless of their race or color. Yet, we, as a health care organization, also understand that we are at risk for discrimination. The good news is that we have a solid support structure that enhances equal opportunity for all.
I learned there remains a small group of people in the nursing world who are who they are and believe what they believe, and there’s no changing them. More importantly, I learned the value of self-discipline while serving my patients at the most honorable level. Ignorance and immaturity exist in this world, but we, as minority nurses, have more than the power and ability to achieve the highest levels in long, fulfilling careers. We should not and cannot allow minor setbacks to dictate who we can become as professionals—we are simply too valuable to the profession. I have always seen nursing as a rewarding career, personally and professionally. Joining the nursing ranks seemed like a no-brainer. And, in general, my expectations of camaraderie, mentorship, and professional development have been met.
Who knows what the next 10 years will bring? I may pursue other interests such as golfing and traveling across the globe. I may even find myself teaching at a local university. I am okay with the unknown that lies ahead when it comes to my career as a military nurse. The one thing that I am certain about is that I will continue to strive in providing the best patient care. The ability to make a difference in patients’ lives means a lot to me. And sometimes, that is all you need. Here’s to another 10 years!
Shared by Joseph D. Hacinas, R.N., M.S.N., C.N.S., P.H.N. Lieutenant Commander, United States Navy Nurse Corps