Three Important Lessons I Gained From Working as a Nurse

My six year old son has started to tell people that I used to be a doctor. I understand his confusion – the idea of a male nurse just doesn’t exist here in Thailand. If he tells people that I used to be a พยาบาล (pronounced ‘pha yaa baan’), they just laugh and say that he must mean หมอ (pronounced ‘maaw’).

Paul Garrigan Nurse

Up until the age of 25, I assumed that any man who worked as a nurse had to be gay. My views changed when I started volunteering as a friend to a young guy with profound learning disabilities. I’d been a completely selfish-shit up until this point in my life, but I experience such joy doing volunteer work that I decided to become a nurse.

Entering the nursing profession turned out to be one of the best decisions of my life. It changed me, and I’m a much better person because of it. I now work as a freelance writer (my dream job), but I still pay my fees every year to stay registered as a nurse. I’ll probably never get the chance to work in the profession again, and this is one of my few regrets.

My career as a nurse lasted 14 years. I only worked full-time for three years after qualifying as an RGN. For the last seven years of my nursing career I lived in Thailand but would return to Ireland for about three months of the year to work like a maniac. I’d do six 12-hour night-shifts a week as an agency nurse, and I’d earn enough to live comfortable in Thailand for the rest of the year.

I gave up nursing reluctantly because I started to feel unsafe. I knew that only working three months of the year made it hard for me to keep my skills and knowledge up-to-date. I wouldn’t be able to live with myself if something bad happened to a patient due to my incompetence, so I’ve had to stop practicing.

Here are just some of the most important lessons I gained from working as a nurse:

Sometimes the Best Thing You Can Do is to Listen

Until I began working as a nurse, I would feel extremely uncomfortable when talking to anyone experiencing a serious health problem. I’d just say something patronizing like ‘you’ll be fine’ or ‘we’re all dying anyway’, and I’d try to change the subject as quickly as possible. I didn’t know what else to say. I didn’t understand that this person probably only needed me to listen.

When I began working as an agency nurse in Ireland, I picked up a lot of work in hospices and palliative care units. I found working with the dying to be stressful but also extremely rewarding. I did the night shift, and this is when people are most likely to pass away – we could have as many as four people dying within a few hours of each other.

The night is when the terminally ill can become most fearful and eager for company. It always felt uncomfortable, but I got better at sitting there and listening to what these people were saying. It seemed to help them to talk, and I’d nothing better to offer them than my ear.

I can be a real chatter-box, and I had to learn how to listen. One of my nursing tutors from Bart’s in London (where I trained) gave me a great tip that I continue to use today. I try to count to ten after somebody has stopped talking before I say something. I can then use this time to think about what I’m going to say, so I’m not doing this while they are still talking (it is impossible to really listen while you are thinking about what you are going to say).

I think most people who are worried are looking for somebody to listen rather than to tell them what to do. It just makes things easier if we can get the shit out of our heads – sometimes the answer becomes obvious by just talking about the problem.

Trust Your Intuition

I don’t know how intuition works – I only know that it does. Nurses tend to have great intuition, and it can save lives. There were so many times when I just got a strong feeling that something wasn’t right with one of my patients. I’d check their vital signs and everything would be fine, but this feeling that they were about to ‘go off’ would persist.

Experienced doctors tend to trust the intuition of nurses. There were many times when I bleeped one of them to come and review a patient despite there being no obvious signs of anything amiss. These hunches usually turned out to be correct because the patient would start to suddenly go downhill – often while the doctor was still on their way to the ward.

I always seem to pay a heavy price for ignoring my intuitions about things. I remember when I first began working as freelance writer, a client scammed me out of a lot of money – I provided them with work they never paid for. This client came across as very charming, but I just sensed something was amiss – I ignored this feeling so I paid the price.


Never Lie to Somebody to Make Them Feel Better

When I was still a nursing student, I annoyed an orthopedic surgeon because I lied to his patient. I felt upset at the time at being told off, but he was completely right to do it. We were trying to move somebody with two broken legs onto a trolley. I told the patient ‘don’t worry, it’s not going to hurt’ – of course it turned out to be a few seconds of pure agony for the guy.

At the time, I wouldn’t have considered what I did as lying. I just wanted to help the patient calm down and feel a bit better. I didn’t realize that by doing this I’d be losing their trust – not only their trust in me but maybe all nurses.

I wouldn’t like somebody to lie to me just to make me feel better. I can work with the truth but lies are just going to get in the way. Sometimes it’s best to say nothing at all.

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4 thoughts on “Three Important Lessons I Gained From Working as a Nurse

  1. I very much like reading the sensitivities and intimate thoughts that became part of your psych while caring for another human being in need. Empathy is something that is received when accepting the vulnerability of someone, ourself and extending help and kindness, rather than judgement. Be in Peace and Health, you and your family.

    1. Thanks Eul, I do think we can find out meaningful things about ourselves when we empathize with other people. I like this quote by Harry A. Overstreet:


      I have my own particular sorrows, loves, delights; and you have yours. But sorrow, gladness, yearning, hope, love, belong to all of us, in all times and in all places.

  2. Great post, Paul. Your stories and lessons are engaging and speak a universal truth about the human condition. I found your experience with those who were dying to be most insightful. Since we are all going to be there ourselves one day, as well as our loved ones, being with somebody at their time, or near their time of death must have been profound. I’ve contemplated chaplain training at a nearby Insight Society, but perhaps not til a little later.
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