Although the hospital where I attended nursing school in the ’60s was large—about 500 beds—the hospital where I got my first job was twice its size. I was intimidated and knew only how to get from the front door to the nursery, where I worked, and from there to the cafeteria.

One evening in my first year there, the charge nurse said, “I got a call from the Staffing Office. They need you to work on Five Center tonight.”

“What’s Five Center?”

“Medical patients.”

“Oh, geez, I don’t know how to care for medical patients,” I responded.

“Well, I don’t think you have much choice. That’s where you’re needed.”

“I don’t even know where it is!”

“I’ll explain how to get there.”

With reluctance and trepidation, I followed her directions and arrived at Five Center. I received a quick orientation to the floor before report, then I was on my own with an aide.  It was a frantic night of tube feedings, IVs, and medications, all melding together in a frantic blur of nonstop activity. My gut was clenched with anxiety the entire eight hours. Somehow, we survived, and I didn’t kill anyone.

Several weeks later I was greeted with a similar message—that I was supposed to float to the neurology unit.

My stomach knotted.

“No,” I said in a rare display of bravery. “I just can’t do that.”

The head nurse called the Staffing Supervisor and expressed my reluctance.

“We have no one else to cover that unit this evening,” was the response.

“I’m sorry,” I said, “I just can’t handle it. It was a nightmare the last time I floated. I’m not able to provide safe patient care.”

“Very well. If you refuse to float, you can go home for the evening. Mrs. Spangler will talk to you tomorrow.” Mrs. Spangler was the supervisor of the obstetrics department.

My husband came home from class to find me in his office with my head on the desk.

“What’s wrong? Are you OK?” he asked.

“I was sent home because I wouldn’t float!”

“What does that mean? Are you fired?”

“I don’t know. I guess I’ll find out tomorrow.”

I spent a dread-filled night waiting for my sentence.

Mrs. Spangler’s call was surprisingly anticlimactic—she was very supportive and sympathetic. I went back to the nursery the next evening as usual—and I was never called upon to float again.

A few weeks later, the head nurse told me the doctor in charge of the nursery felt confident that things were handled well on the evenings I worked. I suspect my reprieve from floating was because he intervened and said he wanted me to stay in the nursery. For whatever reason, I was grateful I never again had to choose between my job and safe patient care.

Joan Greland-Goldstein
Denver, Colorado


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