7. Tales of a Student Nurse: Taking Vital Signs

Starting with the room at the near end of the hall, I introduced myself to the first patient, Mr. Quick, and obtained his TPR and BP without any difficulty. His answer to my question was an embarrassed affirmative: his bowels had moved. Carefully, I recorded the data in the appropriate column in the VS Book and entered the symbol for BM. With a sense of purpose, I conducted the same assessment on the second patient in the room. Again, all went well. I began to realize I was pulling it off; the patients had no idea this was my first time.

With a lilt in my step and my heart bursting with pride, I proceeded to the next patient room, then the next, and so on until I was approaching the last four-bed ward room at the far end of the hall. With each success, it had become ever clearer to me that I’d gained a significant level of competence. My ego began to swell and my self confidence soared. Gradually, I began to assume an officious, almost haughty demeanour, imagining the admiring looks on the faces of the nursing staff when I returned the VS Book to the Nurses’ Station. Flossie would have to swallow that dismissive attitude she’d shown me and on announcing, with a regal bearing, the completion of my task, my success would demand acknowledgment by all.

Caught up in my daydreams I noticed, but didn’t interpret, the foul odour that greeted me as I approached the ward room at the end of the hall. Even though the odour intensified the closer I got to the room, my thoughts were consumed by my anticipated accolades. Four more patients to go, nothing can go wrong now I told myself. Clutching the VS Book in my sweaty palms, I entered the room to the sounds of weeping. The bedside curtains were drawn around the first patient’s bed; the crying came from behind those curtains. Taking another step in that direction, I felt something slippery under my foot, looked down and saw a slick of brownish coloured liquid all over the floor. Focused on the task at hand and without hesitation I pulled back the curtain, stepping inside as the sobbing patient looked up at me from the commode chair beside her bed.

Her face was red, her eyes were puffy, huge tears flowed down her cheeks. Her hair was dishevelled, her patient gown hung off her arm exposing her shoulder and upper chest, further violating her dignity. With obvious distress in her eyes she looked up at me pleadingly. With cool composure, and in the most professional, matter-of-fact nurse’s voice I could summon, I locked eyes with her and said: “Mrs. Jones, have your bowels moved today?”

I never told a soul! Nearly 50 years and tens of thousands of patients later, I remember it like it was yesterday.

Barbara Tiessen in uniform

Barbara Tiessen in uniform

Barbara Tiessen is a retired RN who lives with her husband in southwestern Ontario but winters in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas. She researched her genealogy, wrote and self published The Schoenfeld Russlaender: A Mennonite Family's History in 2015. More recently her interest have focused on writing short stories.
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