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Notes on Nursing: Staying a Nurse

By Robin B. Atkins, RN, OCN

June 8, 2021
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Although the motivations behind becoming a nurse can be thought-provoking, perhaps it is more meaningful to consider why someone chooses to stay a nurse. Like most of my fellow nurses, I have been asked about my initial motivations to enter the nursing profession more than a few times, but it’s likely that most of us haven’t been asked as often about why we’ve chosen to remain nurses. I decided in my early teens that I would follow in my mother’s footsteps and become a nurse like her. Nothing more profound than that. However, one morning in my third year working in med-surg, I casually asked a medical oncologist making rounds if he needed any help in his office. When he said “yes,” my nursing life changed forever. 

I often think back on my interaction with that oncologist on a November morning all those years ago not because I doubt my decision to specialize or remain invested in the lives of others as an oncology nurse. Rather, gratitude is what I feel when I look back, and it is what continues to keep me grounded in this profession that I love.  

I believe patients with cancer and their caregivers are some of the most grateful recipients of nursing care. I have been given many gifts of gratitude from patients over the years, and I keep them on a shelf in my curio cabinet. I’ve received a pure silver bicentennial dollar encased as a pendant. The gentleman who gave it to me told me he had only given out three of these dollars in his lifetime (he was in his 80s), and they were to very, very special people. I also received a crystal Hershey’s Kiss from a gentleman with whom I shared a love for chocolate. Many years later I gave it to a coworker whose oncology nursing service meant so much to me. 

I have received small plaques with sentimental words or pictures on them, a mustard seed charm necklace, handmade handcloths and scarves, gift cards to local eateries, our Lord’s cross in origami, a handsewn doll, and several Christmas ornaments that adorn my tree every year. My front flowerbed is full of daffodils grown from bulbs given to me by a master gardener—talk about forever gifts! But as lovely as these gifts are, it is what has been communicated in quiet moments at the chairside or during a hug, or when looking into someone’s eyes, sharing tears, or holding a hand, that have left the most meaningful impressions on me. I am made stronger, more compassionate, more caring, and more motivated to press on, as I have learned there are all kinds of victories in cancer care.  

A patient I had years ago was the mother of an old friend. On a cold winter’s day her mother had come in for supportive hydration. She was the only person in our sick bay, giving me more time to spend with her. I told her it had started to snow. She smiled and said, “I have always loved to watch the snow fall.” Without hesitation, I turned her bed so she could see the snowfall through a full-length window for the rest of her visit. After her mother’s death, my friend called me to thank me for my kindness---it had meant so much to her mother and thus so much to her. Even now, I get chills as I type this memory out. 

Probably the most profound gift given to me was from a gentleman whom we all referred to as “the man in the black hat.” He gave me a small piece of paper on which were typed a few lines from the movie Summer of ’42: “Life is made up of small comings and goings. And for all the things we take with us, there is something that we leave behind.” Yes. Yes, indeed there is. The gratitude I carry in my heart reflects both the greatest evidence of and the greatest reward for being there.  

This is the first post in a blog series, “Notes on Nursing,” in which Robin Atkins shares her thoughts about her career as an oncology nurse. Future posts will focus on Robin’s professional development by her role models and mentors, the experience of having a nurse in your family, and the importance of nursing the soul.

Robin Atkins, RN, OCN, is a symptom management triage nurse with Virginia Oncology Associates in Norfolk. She is a self-identified southern Virginian and proud baby boomer. Atkins graduated from Riverside School of Professional Nursing in 1985, where she received her RN, and has worked in outpatient oncology since 1988. She and her husband have two adult children, seven grandchildren, and two cats, Gracie and Annie. She enjoys the serenity of living in the country, RV camping with friends in Virginia’s state parks, and canoeing.

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