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5 embarrassing new nurse mistakes

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Regrets, I’ve had a few…but then again, too few to…wait, what?

Nurses make mistakes. Lots of them. Most of the time we catch ’em before they become a big deal. Maybe you’ve pulled a medicine at the wrong time or called a patient by the wrong name, or done something vaguely harebrained that won’t necessarily cause harm, but will cause embarrassment.

New nurses make the same mistakes as other nurses, which can be both a comfort and a source of fear. Herewith, Auntie Jo’s list of mistakes you’re gonna make sometime, and how you can learn from them and recover from them.

1. Making a medication error
This is the biggun. Every nurse now in practice has made at least one, usually without knowing it. My first came early in practice, when I double-dosed a patient with metoprolol. Thankfully, the patient wasn’t harmed—he was tense enough about being in the hospital that all I had to do was monitor him closely and be alert for hypotension. Still, it taught me that triple- and quadruple-checking medications—especially when you’re in a hurry—is hugely important.

2. Omitting some sort of treatment or doing it to the wrong part of the body
There is no worse order than “apply to affected area TID.” If you’re not aware of what the affected area is, you’ll be left staring at the patient’s apparently intact skin, wondering what to do with that little tube of ointment. Preventing an error requires research into the chart and maybe asking the doc what the heck is going on.

Or…let’s say you’re confronted with a myriad of tubes coming out of somebody’s abdomen, unlabeled, and apparently draining several things within the same three square inches. Which one do you flush? How do you tell? Again, this usually requires either searching the chart for clues or (easier) asking the doc which tube is which, and labeling them yourself. You’d be amazed at how many surgeons turn patients over to the post-op team without doing a basic thing such as labeling their drains.

3. Calling a patient by the wrong name
To us, it’s nothing more than an embarrassing slip. To the patient, it’s a huge deal: What else has this nurse confused on me? The only thing to do is apologize—profusely—and continue on with such attention to detail that the patient is reassured.

4. Calling a doc without all the necessary information on hand
This is something you learn early on, especially if you start on the night shift. Never call a physician without the chart in front of you and every single pertinent piece of information about your patient on the tip of your tongue. Especially don’t call the doc at 3 a.m. if you’re not already primed with information and suggestions. Believe me when I tell you that it took me several times, not just once, to learn this.

5. Making an utter, incomparable fool of yourself in front of patients and colleagues
For a colleague of mine who works in public health, it was ending a counseling session with a newly diagnosed HIV+ patient with the words “Stay positive!” For another colleague, it was badmouthing a member of management within that person’s hearing. For me, it was tripping as I came into a room and (after bouncing off several pieces of equipment) ending up in the doctor’s lap.

Unfortunately, while the first two mistakes can be prevented (think before you speak), the last one can’t. The remedy in that last case is to make sure you’re still fully clothed, brush your hair out of your face and laugh it off.

Remember: No matter the error you’ve made, somebody else has done something worse. If your error hasn’t harmed anyone, the best thing to do about it is report it through the correct channels (error reporting helps change bad processes or confusing protocols) and then keep going. Making a mistake doesn’t make you a bad nurse; it just makes you human.

This post originally appeared in The Head Nurse blog.

Agatha Lellis
Agatha Lellis is a nurse whose coffee is brought to her every morning by a chipmunk. Bluebirds help her to dress, and small woodland creatures sing her to sleep each night. She writes a monthly advice column, "Ask Aunt Agatha," here on Scrubs; you can send her questions to be answered at askauntieaggie@gmail.com.

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