Failure as a Nurse: My Story and What I Learned


Failure is a topic not talked about in the nursing profession much.  In healthcare in general it is looked down upon and hidden.  I know many nurses who have struggled with failure at different levels including myself. I think many of the failures in our profession or life in general should be looked at as learning experiences and times of growth. Although, it may be very painful. Sometimes failure is a way of steering you back on the RIGHT path.

Look at it this way, many people go through their lives never failing. You know why, because they are afraid to challenge themselves. They do not want to take the risk of failing, but you did and you will be a better nurse for going through your failure whatever that is.

When I look back on my failures in the profession, I learned a lot about myself. It may not have been a pleasant time or a pleasant event by I am a better nurse for going through those experience.  So, I wanted to just give you some grace today and say it is OK to fail. Keep failing forward in the new year.  Of course, certain failures you should not do, like injury to a patient. You know what I mean.

As I reflect back on twelve years in the profession, I would say what makes me vulnerable to failure is for one being in a hurry, thinking I know what other people are thinking, and going ahead with something even when I feel in my gut I need to check something again before doing it.  Another one is trying new things but this is good and you will fail sometimes when you try new things. That is OK and healthy for your growth as a professional nurse.  Let me tell you about my failure as a nurse.

My story started about two years into my nursing career. I had been working on a medical-surgical floor for two years. I decided it was time for me to get a job in Surgical-Trauma ICU. I had never done trauma and my neuro assessment skills were weak. I was confident since a few of my coworkers had gone on to work in the same ICU and seemed to be doing well. So, I needed some catching up to get up to speed. They paired me up with an ICU nurse who had been and ICU nurse for twenty years. She had a somewhat intimidating personality, but I looked at my ability to succeed as a challenge and went all in.  Everyday I had to bring my A game. This was the sickest of sick in my metropolitan area. The hospital I worked at is a level one trauma center.  So we got some tough ones and they did not give me the easy ones.

The learning curve was steep for the first few months or so, and everything seemed to be going along fine. There were a few times my preceptor would bark at me, but nothing to indicate she felt I was not performing satisfactorily. About that time, the nurse manager asked me to meet with him along with the nurse educator. They informed me that my preceptor did not feel I was performing adequately to be a successful ICU nurse.

At that point they decided to put me with another preceptor. Similar experience and similar personality. I think this is part of the trouble I had. Personally, when I feel intimidated or nervous about someone I am working with it is very difficult for me to concentrate and I start forgetting stuff I would normally know. I have seen this in nurses who I have trained and worked with. I always remember how I felt when learning something new so I try to be gentle as possible when I am walking student nurses through a new skill, they are not familiar with. This has helped me to be a much better teacher as a result.

I remember a few of the nurses were very friendly and knowledgeable in the ICU. Their personalities would put me at ease and I would feel relaxed, but they would not let me work with them.  I think matching someone up with a compatible personality is essential for a successful preceptor experience.

Every day as I was working with my second preceptor, they would give me a fairly difficult assignment and two patients and I had to bring my A game. I must admit, I learned a lot and enjoyed being challenged. At this point it was starting to get unhealthy and I dreaded everyday I had to go to work. I rarely got a break and I had to be constantly on for the entire shift. My preceptor was not very friendly and forgiving of anything I missed.  At this point it was almost as if they wanted me to fail.

To make a long story short, my few weeks with the second preceptor did not work out either. So, they decided to have me work with the nurse educator on a complex neuro patient for one shift. I was so nervous and she was not reassuring at all.  She was constantly asking me questions which made me nervous, and I eventually got one wrong and I could just see the disappointment in her eyes. It was a horrible feeling, because I knew I had failed.

So, to end my story, they finally came to me and said they did not think I was cut out for their ICU. Basically, they were firing me, but they would allow me to stay there until I found another job at the facility.  That is nice and all, but how am I supposed to work in an environment where they have fired me and all the other nurses knew it.

 I knew I had to find another nursing job quickly. The floor I came from did not have an opening, but luckily, I had been picking up shifts on a surgical oncology floor that was going through a time when they needed a lot of help.  So, I quickly filled up my schedule with working shifts on this floor. I can not remember how but the nurse manager knew I was looking for a job and she asked me in the med room if I would come to work for her.  I said yes, of course. I think I was so traumatized from the experience where I had given my all in the ICU and failed. I was still trying to process all that went on with that experience. I went on to work on this nursing unit for the next six years and was very successful at it.

I have often reflected on my short experience in the ICU and wondered how it would have worked out if I would have been successful in their eyes. What I did come to realize is I believe I would have quit after a year or two if I had been successful. For one thing I hated going to work during the last part of the orientation process and I don’t think this would have improved much after my orientation. Sometimes failure is keeping you from doing something that is not your God intended purpose.

 I have found I like talking with my patients and none of the patient were awake in this ICU. They were all sedated. If they were awake they were out of there. Honestly, I have never cleaned up so much body fluids in my life. Don’t get me wrong, I do not mind it if it is needed but I do not prefer it if I have a choice.

Also, the patients I took care of were not very nice. They were either completely still or they were combative, kicking, biting, and angry at the world. It does not interest me to take care of patients who are like that.  Also, the families were always on edge in a trauma ICU. Often one family was fighting with another in the ICU because the victim was often across the hall from the guy who had shot or stabbed him. Security would have to be called often. Honestly, I can do without all this drama when I am at work.   I enjoy the drama on occasion, but not multiple times a week. 

In this ICU they would often have codes and I remember my first one in there it was hard to know what to do. I was still uncomfortable in that setting and I had not done any training on what to do in the event of a code. They kind of happen and then you learn through experience. I know I am not a nurse who enjoys codes. I do them if I have to and it is necessary but I do not get excited when one happens. I have known nurses who are such adrenaline junkies that they seem to get excited if a patient codes.

I did come to realize this particular ICU was not a fit for my personality, but I often still question my abilities to measure up after twelve years of nursing.  My experience there still lingers in the back of my mind and I still ask myself do I have what it takes to succeed in anything I try not just nursing.  

Everything did continue to work out and I am happy where I am. I have found myself specializing in prevention nursing and health promotion so that I can reduce the number of patients who need the level of care the ICU provides. If I can help patients and families avoid that experience as long as possible then that is worth it to me. 

It is funny, when I use to work night shift a few years ago and I would be driving home in the morning I would fear falling asleep at the wheel and crashing my car and ending up as a patient in the surgical trauma ICU I got fired from. This helped me to stop the car and take a nap many mornings. Wanted to share that side note with you.

So, what is your story? Where have you failed in nursing or in life and what did you learn? Share with me what you are comfortable sharing. What have you learned about yourself as a result of your experience? How has this made you a better person or nurse? I look forward to reading your comments so I can learn from you and others can as well.

Have a healthy week,

Nurse Brian