The Truth About Nursing School

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LVN. RN. PRN. IV. All these abbreviations might look like luxury brands or some sort of significant date from Roman history, but really they’re just some of the lingo you need to be familiar with if you’re thinking of becoming a nurse.

Guest writer Melissa Nguyen interviews Kathryn King about getting into—and surviving—nursing school and what it’s like to actually work as a nurse.

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It’s funny, when I watch medical shows, the nurses seem to always fall into the background. It’s always the white lab coats that are rushing around and prominent on screen while the rest of the hospital staff exist as motionless blue dots. But step into any real hospital and you’ll see quite the opposite. Nurses, vibrant in rainbow-colored scrubs, zoom from one spot to another tending to patients, carrying trays of medicine, wheeling IVs, and filling out charts.

What does it take to survive in such a fast-paced environment, where any second of your work day really can be life or death? Surgical nurse Kathryn King talked to me about the academic, as well as emotional, requirements of nursing school and being a nurse.

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Why did you want to go into nursing?

When I asked myself what my purpose in life should be, I decided to try to help others as much as I can.

I started to think, who stays with the patients throughout the day and—for me, as a night shift nurse, throughout the night—and who is there with them physically and emotionally? The answer was the nurses.

So this is why I pursued nursing school.

I finished my LVN (Licensed Vocational Nurse) program in 2007 at Houston Community College, Health Science Vocational Program, worked as a night shift nurse at Tomball Regional Hospital in Houston, Texas, and am now back in nursing school completing a RN (Registered Nurse) program at Kingwood Community College. I also work PRN (or as needed) as a surgical/medical nurse at Tomball Regional Hospital while I finish my program.

How did you prepare for nursing school?

The RN nursing program that I’m currently in told us at orientation to prepare ourselves and our families emotionally because we wouldn’t see them for a while. Nursing school keeps you really busy so there are times you may not have time for them.

They told us to tell our spouses to be patient because there will be days when we’re frustrated and may take it out on them; so apologize now.

I found all of this to be true—so along with academically preparing myself with class prerequisites and academic requirements, I had to mentally and emotionally prepare myself for the commitment nursing school takes.

What did it take to apply and get into nursing school?

There are checklists online of the specific academic prerequisites you need to fulfill before applying to your school and program, so make sure to look at their website.

For me, there was a point system to keep track of my grades in each prerequisite course. For example, if you made an A in Anatomy and Physiology 1, then that’s four points—the more points you accumulate, the better chance you have to get into the nursing program.

From what I have heard, schools only look at the people that make As and Bs. So this is something to perhaps keep in mind as you pursue nursing school.

Along with completing the classes on the checklist, we have an entrance exam called HESI entrance exam that includes basic math, anatomy and physiology, vocabulary and general knowledge, and reading comprehension. I would say nursing school is pretty competitive in terms of grade points and test scores.

What was your schedule like in nursing school?

Busy. Always busy. We would have clinicals once or twice a week, lectures twice a week, skills lab, and simulations.

In skills lab, we practiced tasks such as putting in a foley catheter, starting an IV, giving medication, maintaining a chest tube, doing different types of dressings, and drawing blood.

Clinicals is where we go to a hospital, shadow a nurse on different floors such as med/surg, OR, ER, labor and delivery, postpartum, and where we are assessed on the skills we practiced in lab.

We got additional practice with dummies for certain procedures as well. For some, clinicals are on Saturdays—so that means even dedicating your weekends to school and work. When you are not in class, lab, or clinicals, you had to make room to study since we had tests every two weeks.

What were the challenges of nursing school?

The biggest challenge was not seeing my family and friends for a long time. I felt very secluded from them—but at the very least, I had support from my classmates because we were all experiencing the same thing. We became a close-knit group.

Another challenge was trying to read all the materials that were given to us before testing time. I had to learn how to speed-read.

Multitasking is also a big challenge. In between studying and reading for the lectures and tests, I needed to do projects or papers for clinicals and also practice for skills tests and labs. There were so many things to do, but so little time to do it.

What’s the most important thing you learned in nursing school?

The most important thing I’ve learned was how to be a good nurse; you must have empathy.

When I take care of my patients, I think about how they are sick or not feeling well. No one wants to be in the hospital, so what they need is support and nurses provide that. Nurses are a patient’s advocate—we are not just there to give medications; we listen, comfort, and cry with them if that’s what they need.

What skills do you need to do well in nursing school?

Assessment is the most important skill that you need to do well in nursing school. Everything starts with assessing the patient, such as the patient’s breathing, skin color, if there are any wounds, listening to the patient’s heart, bowel sounds, looking at their pupils and whether they’re reactive to light or fixed, etc.

Also knowing how to read the lab works and results is critical to succeed as a nurse. Anything abnormal might indicate something is wrong, so recognizing those signs will help reach a diagnosis and treatment quickly. Every nurse needs to know how to assess a patient’s condition and the situation.

What is your nurse work schedule like? And daily duties?

I’m a medical/surgical nurse at Tomball Regional Hospital. We work on 12-hour shifts and I work the night shift. That means 7pm to 7am.

Full-time nurses only work three times a week, but also work every other weekend per hospital policy. My work routine consists of getting a report from the day shift nurse on my patients, finding what he/she didn’t have time to do, and then it’s my responsibility to complete those tasks.

Each shift, I meet my six patients on my floor and do an assessment of their current condition, and then prioritize their needs. I then give medications as needed and by schedule.

While that’s generally my daily routine when I’m on duty, individual tasks really depend on the patients I’m caring for that evening and why they are in the hospital. I treat them per their diagnosis. Overall, as a daily routine for nurses: assessment, medication, support and encouragement, and attending to their needs to help them get better.

What are the biggest challenges after graduating nursing school and then also as a working nurse?

The biggest challenge after graduating nursing school was passing the NCLEX board exam, which is an intense final test covering everything you learned in nursing school from medicine dosage calculations to hospital scenarios. It was one of the most stressful times of my life. When you finish, you don’t know if you passed or failed until 48 hours later. Those 48 hours were very emotional, agonizing over whether I failed miserably or if  I did well and passed. I cried when I found out I passed.

As for when I was a new nurse, my biggest challenge was organization. I had to learn to organize my thoughts and prioritize tasks from most critical to less critical. It’s hard because sometimes there are nights where it’s just so busy, you are always on the go, and you are being pulled every direction—those nights, nurses believe the superstition that it’s a full moon (causing crazy behavior that leads to more injuries) or another nurse’s superstition is that someone uttered the phrase, “It’s quiet tonight,” which is taboo to say to a nurse, because we think it will lead to chaos in the hospital.

How is RN school different from LVN school?

LVN school is a one-year program with no Associate degree or Bachelor degree attached. RN school is a two-year program for an Associate degree and four years to receive a Bachelor’s degree. In RN school, you learn more in depth about all subjects pertinent to nursing, including managerial skills, such as delegating tasks to other staff members and methods of critical thinking.

Any advice for those wanting to go into nursing?

You have to be 100% dedicated if you want to become a nurse. Think about what you are willing to do to take care of your patients—and if there’s anything you wouldn’t. Also, plainly speaking, if you have a weak stomach, it isn’t for you. You need to be compassionate, empathetic, and really love taking care of others. Don’t go into nursing just because it pays well—there’s a reason why it pays well—because not everyone can do what nurses do.

Homework time! Are you currently in nursing school? Check out some of the cool benefits AfterCollege offers to nursing students.

When Melissa and her grade school friends would play hospital, she was always the gift shop keeper. This was among the earlier signs that she was not made for the medical field. Find more of her writing at writingsbymelissanguyen.wordpress.com.

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