“A man’s errors are his portals to discovery” James Joyce
Here’s an ugly truth – we screw up. It’s a tough lesson to learn, but a necessary one if you want to be a functioning human being with a heart of compassion.
I discovered this lesson one day as a young nurse when I made a pretty significant error with a patient’s medications. I had been working on my unit when I was asked to go to another floor to finish out someone’s shift as they had to leave early. I hadn’t worked that unit before and was unfamiliar with the layout but I was soon in the groove, enjoying the staff and breezing through my medication pass. I entered a room and handed an older woman a cup of pills, about eight in all. As soon as she tilted her head back to swallow them I had the sickening awareness that she was the wrong patient. I grabbed the empty cup and ran from the room, checking my book. Yep. I had just given someone all the wrong pills.
I immediately felt completely overwhelmed with remorse and panic. Running in to the linen room I began to sob, certain that I was the worst nurse in the world. “Why did I think I could ever do this job?” I thought.
Right then old demons from my past started snickering in my ear. I had sought out a guidance counselor in high school to talk about college, something that was never mentioned in our home. She looked me over and saw my shabby clothes and average grades and said “Honey, you’re not college material. You need to think about a skilled trade.”
Furious that she had written me off so quickly, I made an appointment with the vice principal an older woman who I thought would surely see the potential in me. I met with her, telling her the whole story about the counselor’s dismissive comments. She stood up, straightened her glasses on her nose and said gently “She’s right dear, you just aren’t college material.” And that was that.
I’d like to say that I brushed those comments off, that I was undeterred, but that wouldn’t be the truth. I married young and years later divorced and at the poverty level with three young children, I went back to college with not a stick of confidence that I could ever make it through one class, much less the entire nursing program.
But I did, one class at a time. On the night of graduation as we were all standing in line in our caps and gowns, someone pointed to the program and said “Hey look, you’re Magna Cum Laude!” I had no idea because I had been working so hard trying to outrun the old voices that I never relaxed long enough to see that I was doing well.
So here I was – sobbing in the linen closet, certain that I was an imposter- a horrible human being who should never have been allowed to enter the nursing profession.
The door opened and a fellow nurse entered, asking me what was wrong. I explained the situation to him and his response was “I won’t tell if you won’t tell.” Lying was not even a possibility for me, this was my mistake and the protocol was clear: a doctor must be informed, an incident report must be written up and the patient must be informed. He warned me that if I owned up to it the entire staff on that floor would be talking about me for days.
I left the linen room with a knot in my stomach, and genuine worry that I was causing the potential harm of one of my patients. I took the doctor aside and informed her, she was very kind. She offered to tell the patient herself and asked me to simply monitor the patient’s vital signs more often throughout the night and let her know if anything seemed abnormal. She reassured me that the patient would likely be unaffected by this one mistake and then turned and walked away.
I stood there for a moment waiting for something to break, or for people to start laughing or pointing. Nothing happened. My patient was a dear, and her vitals were stable. No one fired me and life went on.
This was a humbling event for me, and one that helped me learn a few lessons. The biggest one is this: everyone, and I mean everyone, makes mistakes. Those who say they don’t are lying. Doctors knick a bowel during surgery, lawyers miss a piece of evidence, accountants miscalculate a column, bus drivers sail by you without stopping.
It’s part of being human. The way to make it work for you is to learn from it.
Making such a huge error made me realize that one mistake did not define me. I reviewed what I could have done to prevent this and vowed to work hard to make sure it didn’t happen again.
The women at my high school viewed me as a person from a poor family who hadn’t excelled and would never be able to achieve any scholastic goals. It took me a long time to really believe they were wrong. I’ve learned that I am not the sum total of mistakes that I’ve made, that I can define my potential in life – not others, and that telling the truth cleanses the soul.
Being a good employee in any job is a lot about following the standards set in your profession.
Being a good person means that with every fall you learn how to get back up and then allow the mistake to create a deeper place of compassion in you for yourself and for others as well.