The wipe of passage: overcoming anxieties in nursing

    Emily Bingham faced a few surprises in her certified nursing assistant program. (Lou Blouin/for WHYY)

    Emily Bingham faced a few surprises in her certified nursing assistant program. (Lou Blouin/for WHYY)

    In many ways, a career change is a leap of faith. Even if you’re dissatisfied with your current job, there’s no way of knowing you’re going to like your new gig any better until you start getting your hands dirty.

    That became all too apparent for Ann Arbor writer Emily Bingham. Feeling like a career in journalism wasn’t offering her the kind of satisfaction or job security she was looking for, she started exploring a move to the health care field. To test the waters, she began taking anatomy classes at her local community college.

    She aced those. But things got a little trickier when she signed up for some more hands-on training in a Certified Nursing Assistant program.

    “The teacher handed out this list, and it was 50 skills that you have to learn to pass the class,” she says. “And I went down the list, and it was like, ‘hand-washing’ or ‘taking an oral temperature.’ And I thought, ‘This is going to be no problem.'”

    But further down the list, she found some stiffer challenges, like “assist using a bedpan” and “Collect stool specimens.”

    “And I just thought, ‘Oh my god, there’s poop involved.’ I’m going to have to touch a butt! That was my first moment where I realized I was in a whole new world. The thought of working with strangers in that capacity was really terrifying to me.”

    It was her make-or-break moment. Bingham says either she was going to get over the gross-out factor, or she was going to have to face the fact that a career in health care might not be for her.

    “Mercifully, before you’re touching anybody in clinicals, they have you practice on a mannequin. And the teacher turns the mannequin on its side to show you how to do care for someone’s bottom. And you do it on a mannequin and you think, ‘I’ve got this.’ But when you’re faced with actually doing it on a real human being, who’s in an extremely vulnerable position, it’s totally different.”

    But when the moment of truth arrived—which, in Bingham’s case, was giving a patient a full bed bath—she rallied.

    “There was poop. I don’t know how else to say it. But when you’re in the moment, you kind of just do it. To be totally honest, a butt is just a butt. And when we finished up, the woman was super grateful, and you could tell she was feeling really clean and ready for her day. I went home that day and was like, ‘OK, I can do this.'”

    Bingham says the experience was more than just a rite of passage in her journey toward a possible new career. The profound takeaway was realizing how there’s a point in most of our lives where we need other people. And she said it was immensely satisfying to give another person the kind of basic help—like washing someone’s hair or helping someone eat—that makes a real difference in someone’s day.

    “It’s not that I don’t find writing satisfying. But this was a totally different kind of satisfaction.”

    She’s not ready to give up her career as a journalist just yet. But she can now move forward knowing she’s capable of going all the way.

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