When I tell people I am a Master’s degree prepared nurse, people often scratch their heads and ask me what that means; “are you a nurse practitioner?” They ask, trying to relate to something they may have heard of. My grandmother once asked me, “why would you ever want to get a master’s degree to wipe butts for a living?” She isn’t wrong about much, but she was about that. And really, if you’ve ever interacted with a nurse before, you know that nurses are more than educated butt wipers.
In fact, nurses are often exceptional people, providing an invaluable role in healthcare– recognizing what is expected and what is not in a patient, providing interventions, seeking great outcomes, and doing all of such safely. Nurses are focused on evidence-based, data-driven, holistic care for a human being that works complementary to medicine, surgery, psychiatry, public health, and palliative care. Nurses see people and their families during the worst times a family could ever encounter, and provide emotional and physical support. But it’s more than that; they are the eyes, ears, hands, (and nose) that will pick up any change in condition first, and know exactly what to do about it.
The world’s most trusted professionals, and a rare commonality between conservatives and liberals, nurses are beloved (except maybe by my grandmother) and uniquely skilled in bridging the importance of using science to care for people. Education is a key component to being a successful nurse, and I pursued the option to get a Master’s degree. I didn’t have to, having several options to a same track. I had a bachelor’s degree in Health Science, and always knew I liked working in healthcare.
When I finally decided on nursing, I had a few options to go about it: I could obtain a nursing degree from a community college, which for many hospitals now requires a return to school to obtain a bachelor’s degree for continued employment. I could obtain an accelerated bachelor’s in nursing, a great option utilized by many, which will provide a stable career.
I already had a bachelor’s degree and wanted an option that focused on an evidence-based practice, leadership, and interdisciplinary education. That lead me to graduate school. I was accepted to the best nursing school in the country, and was thrilled beyond belief to learn to become one of those excellent eyes, ears, hands, and noses, caring for patients. The downside, naturally, was the hefty price tag on training my senses.
But I did it anyway. I blindly clicked e-signatures to borrow a scary amount of money (a sum that I have since lovingly labeled my “Mind Mortgage”), knowing that I could always be employed as a registered nurse, no matter what my career turned into, and would somehow be okay financially. I was 22 years old and had no help money-wise. I packed everything up and moved across the country to my new home of Baltimore, Maryland. A few weeks before classes began I ensured I had a job that promised a minimum of 20 hours per week, doing research part time on a project that later opened some doors I will forever be grateful for, but more on that later. I knew I had to work to afford basic living expenses. I completed my graduate degree this May.
Here’s what I learned on my journey to becoming a nurse:
- Show up for everything. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed and bail on plans. Show up on time for class, clinical, and even when you get home and want to eat pasta in pj’s, force yourself to go to your friend’s birthday dinner.
- Try to care for yourself the best you can. Nursing school encourages this also, but then schedules a huge exam the day after Thanksgiving. Fit some self-care in your schedule to make it work for you. Eat a vegetable, go to the gym, close your textbook and get some sleep, practice gratitude. Whatever works for you, make a point to do it. Before you start school, find out what works for you.
- Invest in a good stethoscope. You’ll pick up sounds your colleagues don’t hear.
- You don’t have to be a traditional nurse– if you’re interested in pediatrics, critical care, outpatient care, public health, administration, forensics, education, or any number of topics, explore those options and seek out whichever opportunities come your way.
- Ask questions. Beyond the classroom. Part of being a safe nurse is associated with always knowing why. If you’re concerned about sounding dumb related to asking a question, you are concerned for the wrong reason.
- During “code browns,” don triple gloves. It saves a lot of time and hassle, trust me.
During the first four months of my graduate program, I was presented with an opportunity to attend the International Council on Women’s Health Issues annual conference, conveniently located in Baltimore. My faculty mentor whom I had begun working for offered my attendance, in exchange for taking notes and reporting back any relevant research that could have been used for her own. It was there I learned about how males and females present differently with heart attack symptoms. This had never crossed my mind before, and I remember coming home that day, eating pasta in my pj’s, and fervently googling this topic. I continue to do that to this day. I became so passionate about cardiac nursing, particularly in gender differences in disease processes.
At present I work at the Johns Hopkins Hospital in cardiac nursing, and I love it more than professionally. I am grateful for that conference each day. While I didn’t have many notes to report back for my research position, it led me to a career, and goals to grow as a nurse. It has since become my goal to work backwards, working with critically ill patients, seeing all aspects of complex cardiac needs in adult patients. While I am young and spry, I will work in the hospital, but I would like to continue my education with a pretty seamless transition to a few more credits to become a Nurse Practitioner. In this role, I would like to work outpatient in managing heart disease in a preventative sense; managing risk factors, preventing admissions, and focusing on patient education.
For now, each day I wake up, get excited about my career, stress about my Mind Mortgage, and try to think of how it will relate to my future goals. As a nurse practitioner I will have a larger salary, and thus will manage debt more easily. I could have gotten into nursing for much cheaper than what I did, but I accept the fact that with accepting the Mind Mortgage, I had an excellent education and unique opportunities that led me on my path to my dream job.
(Jenna Lemberg is one of four finalists for her category for the 2018 Student Loan Planner scholarship. To vote your preference, make sure to share her story on social media with the share buttons below and leave substantive comments on what you think of her essay.)