One of my early lessons in medicine was “listen to the nurses”. This isn’t to say that nurses know everything and doctors nothing. But we have very different knowledge sets, and it would be easy for a young medical student to simply dismiss anything told them by a “mere nurse” (in this case, “mere nurse” meaning someone who they think—often erroneously—cannot affect their grade). Not only do nurses spend more time with the patients, but the have skills that med students need to learn. Some of the essential skills taught to young physicians by nurses include how to draw blood and place IVs, how to turn patients, how to lift people safely. At many hospitals special teams take care of IVs and blood draws, but many of us trained at hospitals where we were often responsible for these tasks. During emergencies, it helps to know how to do everything—if someone’s heart has stopped, waiting for the IV team would be a pretty bad idea.
In addition to the nurses, at least a dozen pregnant women taught me to place IVs. Pregnant women often have nice, plump veins, making it easy for the novice to slip in a needle. Getting in the needle and catheter is only a small part of it though; you have to learn the preparation and the dance. You have to learn how to tear the tape you need ahead of time, how to secure the IV and flush it, and all the other bits of knowledge that surround getting the needle into the vein. Most important, you have to remember that the vein is attached to a human being, one who may be frightened and in pain, and needs your confidence, your ear, and all of your empathy and compassion.
I made it my business to learn as many of these lessons as I could. I volunteered to start IVs and get blood from the most difficult “sticks”. I wanted to be the one people would call if they couldn’t get the job done themselves. While I rarely use these skills anymore (an excuse often tossed out by young docs who don’t want to bother to learn them) I still value them, and especially now I need to send out a “thank you” to all of the doctors, nurses, techs, and patients who taught me.
This morning I hung a bag of IV fluids for my wife. It seemed familiar. It took me a second, but the understanding, the comfort with the process came back to me quickly. Because of this, we can sit together at home instead of at the hospital. This is worth every night I spent on call alone and tired, surrounded by other people’s loved ones.