5 embarrassing new nurse mistakes

Image: iStockphoto | Thinkstock

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.

Post a Comment

You must or register to post a comment.

31 Responses to 5 embarrassing new nurse mistakes

  1. Megan

    Thank you for this post! I’m getting ready to graduate in May, and like all new nurses, I’m totally nervous about killing someone. Or just being awkward in general. This bring a little comfort! Thanks :)

    • Abby

      It’s good that you’re nervous about making mistakes. So many of the new grads that I know feel too confident. Sometimes they complain about long orientations or preceptorship

    • MrsShippy

      Good luck, Megan! Be a little nervous: it’ll keep you on your toes. And always, and I mean always, advocate for yourself. Don’t let anyone intimidate you. If you can be a strong advocate for yourself, you’ll be a strong one for your patients. Always follow your gut. And, have fun!

  2. Bonnie

    I was all over looking for my patients slippers when I was trying to get her up in the chair.After several minutes I looked up to see her waving her stumps at me. I ‘d forgotten she was a double amputee.This was almost 40 years ago and i remember how I felt!

  3. Linsey

    I was visiting my grandma in the hospital while I was in nursing school. The nurse came in to do her assessment and was looking for her pedal pulses. She was on an orthopedics floor and the nurses for like 2 weeks had been charting that she had 2+ pedal pulses bilaterally. She was in the hospital because she had just had an AKA. We all make mistakes…

  4. Renea

    I will admit that I have made a few mistakes. The biggest one being that I hung an antibiotic on some with the wrong name. Luckily it was the exact medicine that the patient was scheduled to receive. But I just want to thank you for your story about falling in the Dr.’s lap! That made me laugh so that I had tears in my eyes and I really needed that today!

  5. I worked with a nurse that made a mistake in front of me and not in front of a patient I will never forget! I had a patient who had a laminectomy and wanted something for pain.He put his call light on and asked me and I relayed it to the nurse. She was visiting with other nurses and said OK. At least 15 minutes or more later he asked again and she was still visiting.After the 3rd trip to ask for the patient she got up,walked to the medicine room and got the shot. She walked back to the desk,slammed it down and said “I am going to tell him to stick it up his ass or wherever he wants to put it!”This is a licensed nurse and I can’t get a job in nursing because I don’t have a license. It blows me away!

    • teena1282

      It may not have been an appropriate thing for that nurse to say about a patient but for all you know his pain meds weren’t even due yet. Unless you were the nurse taking care of that patient, you don’t know all the details about that patients care. Also, how could you ever expect to get a job as a nurse if you don’t have a license? Imagine how unsafe it would be for anyone off the street to be allowed to practice nursing. Licensure is how the boards of nursing protect the general population and make sure that practicing nurses meet the minimum requirements and knowledge to provide safe care. If you want to be a nurse, then go through the proper channels and get your license. And if you were a nurse who lost your license, then I’m sure the state had a good reason.

      • cdolz


      • lregister

        Abert said “I had a patient…” For all YOU know, Abert could have been a student or a newly graduated nurse. For all YOU know, the patient could have had prn pain medicine ordered as well. For all YOU know, the nurse should have gotten up and seen about her own patient, especially after being told 3 times. I hope you nor any one dear to you ever requires pain medicines and is at the mercy of a nurse like Abert described or based on your fired up response, you.
        Congratulations on stating the obvious as far as licensing goes. Most people with any common sense knows the process. You said, “Imagine how unsafe it would be for anyone off the street to be allowed to practice nursing”. I’m thinking that I would be unsafe and unwise to have YOU as a nurse, if in fact, YOU are one.
        On behalf of all nurses everywhere, thanks for being that nurse that no student or new nurse should ever have to deal with.

  6. malenurse

    HI . my colleges and I (All RNs ) recently found ourself in a tight situation . MD prescribed a diuretic twice a day ( 9am and 9 pm ). Order was pick up and sheduled .He later changed it to once a day (9 am),but failed to change the schedule . So 8 or 10 nurses give the med at 9 am , and 6 of them give 9Pm. Night team different from the morning shift ) For a period of 24 or so days .
    In the past the time ,3 nurses was induce by the same Doctor action twice in a course of a year and 2 nurses one time in a year . Administration was contacted and asked to plead that MD to just give the med orders and leave the sheduling to the nurses . After multiples attempts finally the MD was contacted by the administation and promessed to follw the request . Are we guilty of misconduct or negligence ?

    • Ezmerelda

      Where I worked the charts were checked each night against the MAR….you had to find the original order…All med orders were faxed to the pharmacy. You received the new MAR and compared it to the old MAR….very few mistakes…..
      Doctors should be able to write bor BID or Q12 hr…but the pharmacy does the time scheduling Engles there is a specific reason for the doc’s scheduling the med time…It just be the way he was taught…. Would be nice to have sop ken to him…
      The nurse is responsible for reconciling the chart order to the MAR…every nurse who gave the medication when it shouldn’t have been given is “guilty”….I don’t like that word….Nirses are human…they make mistakes….

  7. kjkamk

    I accidentally asked a man if it was his grandchild as a new grad RN [not realizing his wife was 50 and he was 60 (and the father)]! He quickly gave me this information while I profusely apologized.

  8. JerZFox

    “Remember: No matter the error you’ve made, somebody else has done something worse.”

    But also remember: To somebody else, you’re somebody else.

    Also remember: In nursing, 100% is pass. 99.9999% is fail. To err is human. In nursing, it’s totally unacceptable.

    • cjrn

      Wow, unfortunately we are human and mistakes can and do happen. The important part is fess up to your mistake, no matter how serious, to keep the patient safe. I have followed nurses who believe that they are not capable of mistakes and low and behold, they do not fess up that they made a medication error. Who suffers? Only the patient, I’m not sure about you but I got into nursing to help people, not cause them harm. Admitting that we are human and will make mistakes, which we all do, is just part of being a nurse. Yes, we can eliminate most errors by double and triple checking everything we do, however, sometimes mistakes will still happen. We just must remember to acknowledge our error and ensure the patient is not harmed by our error. If you think you are going to be right 100% of the time, this, in and of itself, is a major problem. How can you make a mistake if your perfect!

      • MrsShippy

        Our wonderful nursing instructor told our class only 2 types of nurses haven’t made med errors: those who don’t pass meds and those who lie.

  9. tiaj72187

    I work med surg. One time I walked into a busy rapid response of a guy that had COPD with rising CO2 levels. I was just stopping by to see if I could help. When I walked in the room everyone just stopped, the chaos died down and everyone stared at me. Innocently I was like, “what?”, that’s when the doctor asked, “hey could you plug the bipap back in please…”


    So embarrassing, I couldn’t help but laugh it off though.

  10. letmestyle

    I had just spoken with a PA about new pain meds I walked into the pts room and stopped a family member from talking to tell the pt about the new pain medication. The “family member” looked at me and said Hello I am Doctor …… I believe you just spoke to my PA. It was very embarrassing. Also love it when you forget and ask a pt when there last bowel movement was when they have a colostomy or when the last time they voided and they have a catheter.

  11. nrsjeni

    I had a very serious conversation with a new nurse awhile back about a patient with DM2 I asked her of the patient was taking metformin and she very seriously replied no she is taking glucaphage. Later she said those are the same aren’t they?

  12. starry66

    I once tried to compliment a doctor on Valentines Day who came in dressed nicely and a flashing heart pin on his lapel. He was pretty shocked when i said..”wow, you look nice, you even have a heart on”! (say it to yourself a few times). I mustered the little dignity I had left and went down the hallway and hid.

  13. Barb C.

    I’m an RN (47 years). I was in a physical rehab in-patient unit. A new graduate brought me medication that I KNEW had been discontinued, and when I told her I didn’t want to take it, she told me I HAD to take it. She tried to tell me I “couldn’t refuse to take a medication that the Doctor ordered” for me. We had a polite chat about “forcing” a patient’s compliance. I never saw her again!

  14. RN14

    Doctor ordered “respiratory toilet” on one of my pediatric patients. I called Distribution & Central Supply trying to locate a respiratory toilet…..

  15. JoyE

    Number 4 would have been helpful to know starting out as a new nurse. I worked in a nursing home and had to call the doctor about a resident. The Administrator, the DON, and ADON were all sitting at the nurses station when I made my first call ever to a doctor. I did not have vitals or the residents chart and the doctor let me know in no uncertain terms my mistake. I was mortified but learned a valuable lesson in being prepared when talking with a doctor or anyone for that matter. And even though I heard subdued but hysterical laughter from the management as I left the nurses station…I kept my job.

  16. mazz

    rememberingmy 1st year student days when I was filling a bath fior a patirnt then called away to assist with a code brown extreme. completely forgotten the bath and flooded the ICU. oh how foolish did I feel,lol

  17. Sister_Eve

    All five I can’t relate to, but the fifth is the one that stands out the most: 3 hours into the shift walking out of my NUM’s office I suddenly remembered I had another question for her – spun around in that past pace gait that most nurses learn and *whack* – dazed, I realised I had walked straight into a wall that also donned a metal glove dispenser rack. NUM found me dazed on the floor holding my head that was covered in blood – never a good day when the nurse becomes a patient in her own department (ED): 4 stitches on the forehead and sent home to nurse my own concussion! The jokes still plague me from coworkers!

  18. anna34r8

    In 2007 in Uk we had floods. I had stopped on my way to work to assist a driver who had skidded off the road into a ditch. Not only was I was late to work for my first day I was soaking wet through. I briskly walked into the ward turned the corner and fell on my ass infront of the nurses station!! Hi im your new nurse.

  19. lyfsavr13

    thank you for this post, as a new nurse myself i can now feel “human” instead of “stupid” lol

  20. Melissa Christie

    I remember the very first time I gave an injection, as a 2nd year student. Methodically drew up 3 drugs for the pre-med…..then promptly shot half of it up into the air because I was shaking so much!

  21. Jungabel

    Embarassing as it is, as a brand new grad, I worked in long term care on night shift. My first night shift, I was told to go to Mr. So and So’s room and get a set of vitals as he was actively dying. I went to his room and promplty put the pulse ox on his finger and eagerly awaited the reading of his oxygen levels, as well as a pulse number… I waited and re-adjusted the probe … and waited… still nothing… Re-adjusted again… looked up at him and yep… DEAD. Taught me a lesson! LOOK at the patient! I was so task oriented!! LOL

  22. Rebecca Thomson STN

    I love this post. Made my first red faced error the other day. I was asked to restart services for a patient, who was going home the following day. Unfortunately, it wasn’t until I came off the phone that the physiotherapist next to me pointed out I had been talking about the wrong patient. Cue my big red face phoning back social service and explaining my mistake, only for her to tell me she had to report my error. Thankfully she was winding me up, and after I’d given her the right details, it was all sorted! I was also pleased that the nurse who gave me the task didn’t find out, she was a bit scary!

  23. RNCampbell33

    I’m certain that I made some mistakes as a new nurse, but there isn’t one in particular that sticks out. The embarrassing story I have happened to a fresh-out-of-nursing school coworker. I had been nursing for about 2 1/2 years at this point, and was happy to help her place a catheter in an older male patient when I was asked. On the way too the patients room, she was explaining the difficulty she had, stating “I’ve never seen ‘one’ like this”, and how confused about it she was. Once I assessed the situation, I was able to determine that the older patient had never been circumcised, and simply ‘adjusted’ him so that the catheter could be correctly placed. She was mortified after I showed her, and pleaded that I not tell anyone about it. I felt her humiliation, especially having been new once (and frankly was still kinda new myself), but I thought her naivete was adorable.