“There’s a sucker born every minute.”
~ P.T. Barnum
You’ve probably heard that Barnum didn’t coin that memorable phrase. In fact, there’s no hard evidence that the consummate showman and circus magnate ever said it even once. Still, the quotation has become permanently associated with Barnum’s name because he was the quintessential charlatan.
His circus – the “Greatest Show on Earth” – owed its success, at least in part, to exaggeration, dubious claims, and hoaxes, and all of those depended on locating folks with money to burn and credulity to exploit – “suckers,” in other words. Rubes. Chumps. Fools – as in the old saying, “a fool and his money are soon parted.”
But there’s another kind of fool, and this auditorium is full of them: Nursing students. Students who have devoted long hours to arduous study, the painstaking acquisition of new skills, and the challenges of early morning – very early morning – clinical experiences. And…why – for what?
In pursuit of a profession that’s oriented to sacrifice and service? In the hopes of making a difference in people’s lives, maybe even change the world?
C’mon – really?
The truth is: Nursing is a pain in the neck – literally, along with the lower back, and not to mention the head (pass the Tylenol, extra strength). The demands are constant, the stress, relentless, and the implications of our actions and decisions, enormous – and these guys are signing on voluntarily?
Then there’s this: Nursing stinks – again, literally. I’m confident these students can tell you stories from last semester’s clinicals (if they haven’t already), and you nurses out there in the audience have plenty stories of your own to share.
Moreover: Nursing is lousy – sometimes literally, as in lice-infested. Or perhaps it’ll be any of the other vermin, viruses, and infectious critters that show up in healthcare domains and which ordinary folks prudently avoid.
Not nurses, though, and these students are heading right into all that – and we’re here to honor their bizarre, yet noble professional trajectory.
Some of them will work in hospitals after they graduate, some in doctor’s offices or nursing homes, some will take their nursing skills overseas as missionaries. Regardless of where they end up, they’ll all devote themselves to lightening the burdens others, and, in so doing, brightening up their corners of the world for everybody.
In a sense, they’ll be following in the footsteps of St. Paul, that wacky missionary who seems to have been heedless of all inconvenience and danger as he tramped about the Mediterranean proclaiming the Word – and not just in words. “With such affection for you,” he explained to the Thessalonians, “we were determined to share with you not only the Gospel of God, but our very selves as well.” That is, Paul strove to match his verbal message with a practical one – to make the Gospel he preached identical to the Gospel he lived.
Isn’t that what we expect of nurses? Isn’t that what nursing’s all about? It’s not just about passing pills, managing tubes, and dressing wounds. It also includes pouring our very selves for others – in most cases, total strangers.
So, are you wondering how we go about equipping these would-be fools for that all-encompassing task? No doubt, you’ve already heard the worst of it from your students – like the exams, for instance, which are unlike any exams they’ve had before.
Yes, those exams are so tricky – the multiple-choice questions often have multiple correct answers, but only one best answer. It’s by design, of course, because we’re testing not only the acquisition of knowledge, but also critical thinking with regards to applying that knowledge in actual clinical situations – no easy task, I assure you.
Let me give you an illustration of how it works – one that’s very familiar to the students, and quite likely personally familiar to many of you gathered here: The daily baby aspirin.
Lots of folks take it these days, but few if any babies – it’s a grown-up thing. Unlike baby aspirin for babies – which might be for fever or pain – a baby aspirin for grown-ups is for one of its other properties: Reducing blood clot formation, which may help prevent heart attacks and strokes.
So, let’s say this comes up in a med pass at the nursing home or hospital. As our students are checking their Five Rights and consulting their drug cards, trying to get everything in order, we instructors might casually ask, “And why is your elderly patient taking a daily baby aspirin?”
The first time this happens, there’s almost always a pause, and maybe a stammer, and then a timid, halting, “for…pain?” We’re never surprised by that answer, and, technically, it is a correct answer, isn’t it? I mean, we do give aspirin for pain, don’t we?
But it’s not the best answer, and explaining why that’s the case is part of the steep, steep learning curve for nursing students. And the next time a baby aspirin is on the menu for an adult patient? The student will reply, “To prevent clots”…hopefully.
Frankly, we expect our students to get things like this wrong – even repeatedly – regardless of how much they study and practice. It’s why they’re in school, after all: For the “nursey” stuff. If they got all the “nursey” stuff right from the get-go, most of my colleagues and I would be out of a job.
Yet, as I’ve already noted, there’s more to it, especially here at Bethel, for we’re also attempting to foster an alignment of nursing identity – the one oriented to meds and treatments and monitoring vital signs – with servant identity – the one given over to charity and empathy and simple kindness.
There, too, there’s a constant weighing and evaluating between correct and best, and it can be a challenge, for straightforward nursing tasks are never optional, and they can’t take a backseat to spiritual and otherworldly concerns. Sometimes we succeed in finding the proper balance; sometimes we don’t. In both cases, we reflect on our experiences, take heart from our little victories, learn from our mistakes – and keep on going.
It’s like something I heard Lorne Michaels say on an NPR interview. Michaels is the television producer and innovator responsible for Saturday Night Live – basically he invented it. When asked how he manages to put on a live broadcast comedy and variety show each week, do you think Michaels replied that they have everything in place each Saturday? That all the contingencies have been addressed, all the potential problems ironed out?
Not at all. “We don’t go on because we’re ready,” Michaels told NPR. “We go on because it’s 11:30.”
That’s true for lots of endeavors that entail risk and hard work – marriage, for instance, and parenting. Christianity itself, for that matter, and certainly nursing – even while we’re still in school. We aim for excellence, but we can’t wait for perfection, for total confidence – we’d never act! We’d never nurse!
Besides, it’s not the nursing itself that’s the point – as important as it is, the nursing’s not the point at all. Instead (and at the risk of sounding terribly corny) it’s really about the love – moreover, for us here at Bethel, we can specify further and speak of the love of Christ.
It’s the kind of love that drove the earliest disciples of Jesus to radically extend themselves on behalf of others in imitation of their crucified and risen Master. “We are fools for Christ’s sake,” to quote St. Paul again, but the world needs fools like these – and not only to care for sick folks and babies and aging codgers like me.
We need them because their idealism reminds us of what ought to be – what the world could be if only more of us chose to embrace selflessness as they have.
So, congratulations, students, for your foolishness – and thanks. Your future as nurses is a gift to us all and sign of real hope.
This essay was adapted from an address to first-year nursing students at their Nursing Dedication ceremony, Bethel College, Indiana (23 January 2016).