Alter Alter Christus: Of Lab Coats, Chasubles, and Playing Priest

Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.
~ St. Paul

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Getting Ready for Fundamentals of Nursing

That song is such a beautiful, poignant picture of old age and opportunity – a dual reminder that all of us (our parents, loved ones, me, you) will eventually reach our expiration dates, but also that, now, while we’re younger, we have so many chances to touch the lives of others already there.

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Courage to Fail

The experience of getting things wrong is the incentive for getting them right.
~ Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.

Students: Congratulations! We’re all here to celebrate your accomplishment and your future. I know most of you – not all – but even if I don’t know you personally, I do know that if you’re sitting down here in front, then you’ve definitely accomplished something worth celebrating: The completion of your first clinical course in nursing school – yes!

JeffToday we’re glancing back to what you’ve done, and we’re also looking ahead as you continue on your way to a rewarding, meaningful career. We all salute you!

Like I said, I don’t know all of you, but the ones I do know have already had to listen to me plenty – both last semester and, for some, again this semester – so I’d like to suggest you kick back and relax for now.

Instead, I’ll direct my remarks to everybody else out there: The spouses, moms, and dads, the sons and daughters, grandmas and grandpas, the friends and neighbors – all these good folks who’ve come to honor you and share in your triumph. So, good folks, I want to give a testimony – to provide a little inside information as to why today is a big deal, some insight into your student’s accomplishment and future.

We’ll start with the accomplishment: The first semester of nursing school – no small feat, I assure you. Some of these students came into our program with healthcare experience; most of them, with little experience or none at all. Regardless, all of them had to start over from scratch – to learn how to learn differently, in addition to acquiring new skills and knowledge.

If you’re a nurse yourself, you already know that, right? You remember what nursing school was like. For the rest of you, you’ve probably been hearing a bit about the whole scheme the last few months: The massive books; the exams and skill check-offs; the ungodly clinical hours; the grumpy (sometimes) instructors; and (you’ll forgive me) the body fluids – always the body fluids, a staple of the nursing profession.

But that’s too simple, too obvious. There’s way more to it than that, you see. The big picture of nursing education involves much more than simply piling up proficiencies and passing tests. So, to help me draw that bigger picture, I’d like share an email with you. It’s from a friend who’s applying to nursing school, and she wanted some advice.

Here’s what she wrote:

Over the winter break, I am working on my nursing application. The personal statement requires that I elaborate on personal qualities that will contribute to my success as a professional nurse, and I thought it would be a good idea to ask some professional nurses what it takes. I know we talked about this before, but if you wouldn’t mind sending me a line about what first comes to mind for you – of qualities successful nurses have – that would be much appreciated.

Great question, right? If you’re intent on going to nursing school, it makes sense to find out what it takes to be a successful nurse.

I wrote back, of course, but before I tell you what I wrote, I want to share three brief vignettes – three images that capture different dimensions of my answer. All three are from National Public Radio – no surprise there. NPR is on in my car all the time, and I ruminate on the stories over and over as I drive around town.

And, as it turns out, the first story happens to be about driving. It was an interview with reporter Matt Richtel about his book, A Deadly Wandering. Richtel addresses the limits of the human brain, our obsession with gadgets, and the dangers of distracted driving – especially texting while driving.

So let me ask: How many of you text out there? Probably most, if not all. I’d venture to say that all of you avoid texting while driving, right? And that’s what you teach your teens when they’re learning to drive, I’m sure.parentdrivered_wide-18cd991c0945ba2a06de76a6316f4fc5c03df41b-s1100-c15

OK, here’s where I’m one up on you: I do not text – never have; never will. I’m kinda’ proud of that, to tell you the truth. There are a lot of disadvantages, I know, but here’s one definite advantage: When I’m teaching my teens to drive, I don’t have to worry about being called out as a texting hypocrite. For if I don’t text at all? Then they’ll never see me text and drive – case closed!

Of course, there are other mistakes we make as drivers besides texting, and I’m not going to pretend that I’m a perfect driver. However, I’ve managed to get two kids driving without ending up in jail, a lawsuit, or the hospital, and the third is in process – it’s always an adventure, but it’s going well despite my imperfections.

And that’s the key, isn’t it? When you’re teaching someone to drive, you have to accept the fact that the student will make mistakes – which is why professional driving instructors have their own steering wheels and pedals – but you also have to acknowledge that you yourself aren’t immune to error either.

In fact, without the risk of making mistakes, nobody would ever learn to drive. You can only do so much in simulators or the classroom. At some point, you have to be out in traffic, surrounded by other vehicles, and taking the chance that the other guy will do something wrong – or that you will. That’s how new drivers – and nurses – learn, and our role as instructors includes making room for error while ensuring that they avoid the errors that can have catastrophic consequences.

This idea was reinforced by another interview I heard on NPR – this time with Ed Catmull, the co-founder of Pixar Animation Studios. You’ll remember Pixar as the folks who brought us Finding Nemo, A Bug’s Life, and the Toy Story movies. Catmull’s book is titled Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming The Unseen Forces That Stand In The Way Of True Inspiration, and what do you guess is his fundamental recommendation? Here’s Catmull in his own words:

People understand that failure is part of learning – it’s like we all get that. But we have a problem: There’s another meaning of failure. That’s the one we learned in school, which was that you weren’t smart enough, you didn’t work hard enough, or you screwed up. So we have these two meanings of failure, and they both exist inside of us. The result is that we tend to interpret failure as a necessary evil. We have to address that head-on – to say, no, failure is not a necessary evil, it is a necessary consequence of doing something new. If you don’t fail, then you’re actually screwing up in a much bigger way.

pixarDid you catch that? Catmull is one of the most successful people in the movie biz, and he’s arguing that if he’s not goofing up, then he’s missing the boat big time. It sounds paradoxical, but it makes sense: If we’re not making mistakes, then we’re not experimenting and exploring new ideas and trying out alternative ways of doing things – what they used to call, “thinking outside the box.” Maybe it would be better to call it: Breaking free from the fear of failure.

And that brings me to my third NPR story. I missed it when it aired, but one of my students – someone sitting right down here – shared it with me. It’s a bit hard to believe, but it seems that an assisted living facility in California shut down suddenly a year or so ago, and the residents who remained were literally abandoned.

Abandoned, that is, except for two employees – cook Maurice Rowland, and janitor Miguel Alvarez – who stayed on, without pay, to serve the residents until help arrived three days later. Here’s how they described their experience:

MAURICE: There was about 16 residents left behind. And we had a conversation in the kitchen – what are we going to do?

MIGUEL: If we left, they wouldn’t have nobody. We were just the cook and the janitor. But I was cleaning people up, helping them take a bath.

MAURICE: I was passing out meds. My original position was the cook. But we had like people that had dementia. I just couldn’t see myself going home…. Even though they wasn’t our family, they were kind of like our family for the short period of time.

A couple things to notice here. First, this janitor and cook: Were they not nurses those few days, despite their lack of training and credentials? Their devotion and loyalty overcame whatever fear they had of making mistakes, and they took a risk, and they acted.rowlandnpredit_wide-ae030fb5aaa1c047787ca0de69bcf3486cf27d62-s1100-c15

That’s one thing; here’s a second: It was my student who brought this story to my attention. It was my student who found it inspiring and wanted to pass it along because she instinctively recognized an affinity she shared with Maurice and Miguel. All of them – the cook, the janitor, my student – had integrated a vision for care and compassion that went well beyond job or paycheck. And that goes for all these students down here as well.

So, back to my friend who was applying to nursing school. After everything I’ve just said, you probably have a pretty good idea what I told her. Nevertheless, for the record, here’s what I wrote, and it can serve as a fitting tribute to your student as well:

I think a successful nurse is one who isn’t afraid to fail. That failure can take many forms – failure to care, failure to rise above fatigue and personal problems, failure to catch everything and know everything.

In short, a good nurse has to accept the fact that she’s human, and plan accordingly. To paraphrase Mother Teresa, expect to get things wrong sometimes, but try anyway; expect to be misinterpreted, but reach out anyway; expect to be hurt, but pour yourself out anyway.

God bless you as you press forward – courage!

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An address to first-year nursing students at their Nursing Dedication ceremony, Bethel College, Mishawaka, IN (24 January 2015). An adapted version of this address was published on Catholic Exchange.

Seatbelts, Everyone!

On The Magic School Bus,
Step inside, it’s a wild ride!
Come on!
Ride on The Magic School Bus!

Congratulations! You made it through your first semester of nursing school, and now you’re poised to really get into it – to build on what you’ve learned, and continue accumulating the knowledge and experience that will lead to a rewarding nursing career.

OK, that’s it, students. Relax. You can sit back and daydream now, because the rest of my remarks will be addressed to your friends and family.

large_0710115716Nursing_promo_06_099So, friends and family, you’re all here to celebrate the accomplishments of a nursing student in your life – a Bethel nursing student, to be precise. One of the students sitting right here.

No doubt, she (or he – there are some, and they’re certainly included here out) has already told you about all the work she’s done, everything she’s been learning – the chemistry, nutrition, anatomy and physiology, not to mention the actual nursing stuff – plus clinicals.

Ah, yes, clinicals! Walking into a total stranger’s room for the first time, introducing yourself, and then bathing him – or poking him with a needle and giving him a shot; or cleaning up soiled linens after an accident. Can you imagine?

Plus there’s the charting and the assessments, taking vital signs and interpreting labs, looking up lists of meds and being prepared to answer questions – from clinical instructors, for sure, but also from the patients themselves!

I haven’t even mentioned the exams, right? The exams are tough, and your nursing student obviously did alright, or else she wouldn’t be here.

So, nursing school is a lot, as you know from the firsthand reports of the nursing student in your life. What I want to do today is give you an additional angle on their accomplishment – to help you further grasp the immensity of what she has gotten through, and what she’s taking on.

To help me do that, I’m going to draw on the tried and true wisdom of a beloved character that many of these students grew up with – either on TV, reruns, or videos: The Friz.

Remember those books a while back about All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten, and the like? Well, I’m here to tell you that everything these students needed to succeed in nursing school they learned from the PBS kids’ show, The Magic School Bus.MagicSchoolBus-620x323

And what were those things? The star of The Magic School Bus was the inimitable Valerie Felicity Frizzle – Ms. Frizzle – a third-grade teacher, and a Virgil to her class of Dantes.

In addition to her unorthodox and, at times, surreal teaching methods, Ms. Frizzle was well known for a number of stock phrases and sayings. For example, when she announced, “Seatbelts, everyone,” her students knew that they were in for another wild learning adventure, especially when she followed up with the command, “Come on, bus, do your stuff!”

Or, here’s another: “Look for connections” – the Friz’ way of fostering curiosity and critical thinking as the students careened through their outrageous field trips.

But the most famous Ms. Frizzle catchphrase has to be: “Take chances, make mistakes, get messy!” These three ideas were the very core of the show – “Take chances, make mistakes, get messy!”—and really the very core of Ms. Frizzle’s character.

This past fall, I’ve caught myself frequently quoting these very words (or versions of them) as I’ve assisted my students – these students, your students – explore the world of nursing. Ms. Frizzle’s outlook on education – on life – seems especially apropos of nursing.

Here’s why.

First, Take Chances. This is the easy one, and it’s kinda’ the most obvious. We’ve already established that nursing school is hard – toughest major on the Bethel campus here, or any campus for that matter – and it’s equally true that nursing itself is hard.

Yes, it’s a rewarding career, and a meaningful one – you can really make a difference in people’s lives.

And for Christian nurses, it’s not just a career, but also an opportunity to demonstrate ones love for Jesus by loving people in word and deed.

All that, and a decent salary with benefits!

Yet…it is tough – demanding, at times exhausting; mentally and physically and emotionally taxing. So, it’s a risky enterprise your student has undertaken, and getting through school is only the beginning, for the risk-taking occurs every time a nurse approaches the bedside of her patient.

hospice_and_palliative_careThere’s a vulnerability involved, an outpouring of the self, that can be rebuffed – kinda’ like God reaching out to His creation, to His chosen people, to us, and being rejected, time and time again.

No matter. God keeps loving us anyway. And, similarly, that nursing student in your life, who has already taken plenty of chances just to get here today, will continue taking chances going forward—now until graduation, and beyond.

Then, there’s: Make Mistakes. You’re asking, “What can he possibly mean by that?” Right? I mean, we’re talking about nurses here. Make mistakes? You’re like, “What are they teaching my student here at Bethel?”

To be sure, mistakes in healthcare – medication errors, errors in surgery, things like that – are scary, and can be deadly. Nothing funny about that.

And certainly, safety is our goal #1 – “our” meaning the nursing profession in general, and Bethel’s School of Nursing in particular. Rest assured that your student is learning and adopting the attitudes and practices that promote patient safety as the highest priority.

Note, however, that I mentioned “learning” and “adopting.” When we learn things and try out new skills, we make mistakes—we’re human, after all.

Your student works hard to get everything right – both in the classroom and in the lab – but does she? If she did, she wouldn’t need to be here, and we’d be learning from her rather than vice versa.

No, mistakes are part of the deal, and we use those mistakes to further and deepen learning. Better to answer a question wrong and learn from it than avoid answering the question at all – or avoid the rigors of training and formation altogether.

Your student is in good hands here at Bethel. It’s our job to, in a sense, guide your student’s “mistake-making” to optimize her learning and her growth into the profession.

That way, when she is taking care of actual patients – using that knowledge and skill acquired through painstaking study, trial & error, and, yes, learning from mistakes – then significant mistakes, significant errors can be avoided.

Mistakes can be embarrassing, even humiliating, it’s true. That’s why we have to encourage your student to go ahead and try – do her best, even if she makes a mistake. She’ll learn from it.

Finally, there’s: Get Messy—a phrase that takes on a whole new meaning once you get into nursing school, and which doesn’t need a whole lot of additional comment.

Except for this: Messiness isn’t just about physical mess, but people’s lives as well. In clinical, your student has begun to encounter messiness of all kinds, including loneliness, fear, pain, and even despair.

She has been an instrument of healing in those lives – listening when no one else would listen; offering comfort and encouragement; responding to messy needs of all kinds.

mark-2-16-why-does-he-eat-with-tax-collectors-and-sinnersIn this sense, Jesus got messy all the time – and he got criticized for it. Like when the Pharisees and scribes upbraided him for hanging out with sinners and tax collectors.

Remember Jesus’ response? “Those who are well do not need a physician, but the sick do. I did not come to call the righteous but sinners.”

Nurses get to imitate Jesus in this. We get all tangled up in the messiness of others’ lives and become, we hope, instruments of the Lord’s healing, whatever form it takes.

I know that you all enthusiastically support the nursing student in your life, that you’re making significant sacrifices so that she can press on, that you’re praying for her.

We up here thank you, your student thanks you, and, frankly, the nursing profession and the entire healthcare sector thanks you!

I trust that the things I’ve shared with you today have given you some insight as to why your support is so crucial. As your nursing student progresses toward her nursing future, she navigates incredible frontiers almost daily.

Encourage her to keep taking chances, keep learning from her mistakes, and keep cleaning up the messes.

And encourage her to buckle up – it’s going to be a wild ride!

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An address to first-year nursing students at their Nursing Dedication ceremony, Bethel College, IN (18 January 2014)

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