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Memory Shelf in My Study

Memory Shelf

As I look back over my 40-year nursing career, I sometimes wish I were still in the classroom so I could tell my students a few things I’ve come to believe are important on the road to becoming leaders. I say leaders, because we need leaders at this time of transition in our health care system as we wrestle with terms such as accessibility, affordability, choices, quality, safety, value, and innovations.

That’s a mouthful, I know. Jargon, you may say. So let me pare down what I want to share with you to three ordinary words of advice*: learn, listen, and empower.

What comes to your mind when you think about each one?

When I think of learn, I remember all the classrooms I’ve sat in at degree-granting programs, as well as countless in-services, conferences, and conventions. And I remember tidbits of all the conversations I’ve had with people from patients to peers to policy makers and more.

So my first word of advice is to take seriously the idea of life-long learning. Knowing as much as you can know will enable you to become nursing leaders in broader roles than ever before; imagine yourselves at the bedside identifying researchable nursing problems or in the classroom exploring new methods of teaching or in the research lab writing up your findings and or in the boardroom educating lay members about what nurses do or in the newsroom writing health-related articles or at your own desk writing your personal nursing stories or as a member of Congress effecting health care policy. And that’s a run-on sentence for a reason; the list could go on and on.

Apprehensive? Yes!

Scared? Yes!

When I think of listen, recent experiences I’ve had with nurses pop into my head—the RN when I was admitted to the cardiac wing of an Emergency Room who took her time, between scurrying back and forth between cubicles, to elicit my fears and the RN when I fell, fractured my hip, and had a hip pinning who stopped by at the end of his shift to tell me he’d be off the next few days and to ask me what concerns I had about being discharged the next day.

So my second word of advice is to make time to listen. To step back and consider how everyone will need a nurse, either as a caregiver or an information provider at some point in their lifetime, and by listening to their stories you can more effectively expect, for example, patients to adopt health-promoting self-care behaviors, colleagues to be amenable to changes in the workplace, physicians to support your point of view, and … (you fill in the blanks).

Finally, when I think of empower, some encouraging and supportive words from my mentors shoot into my awareness as if they were said yesterday—the evening supervisor who told me she would automatically sign off on my overtime because she’d know it was legitimate, that, in her words, I was “doing nursing right” by not cutting corners; my advisor in the RN to BHS(N) program who, after I’d protested that I didn’t want to become a teacher, said “You should become a teacher” and filled up my electives with education courses; and the nursing dean who encouraged me as a new teacher to go back to school for an advanced degree because “You seem to have a knack for teaching.”

So my last word of advice is to empower everyone in your path, to give them what they need to succeed, whether it be a patient learning to care for his wound, a student giving his first injection, an administrator planning a yearly budget, an interdisciplinary committee determining national health care goals, and … (you fill in the blanks, again).

Nurses Training, 1960

Nurses Training, 1960

Coming from the era of our profession where nurses were thought to be handmaidens of physicians, I will be jubilant when the time arrives that all health care providers, and the general public, come to recognize and value, unquestionably, our vital theoretical and evidence-based contributions at every level in the vast arena of health care.

Oh my, just thinking about possibilities again sets my innate nursing fervor on fire. Even when retired life calls and age prohibits active practice, I will always be a nurse in my mind. But I happily leave you, aspiring nursing leaders, with these three ordinary words of advice—learn, listen, and empower—capable of creating extraordinary changes in our world.

* An initiative celebrating nursing leadership sponsored by Simmons School of Nursing and Health Sciences

** This essay won third place in the above contest.