My stomach tightened as I drove to the vaccination center. What was I doing? I hadn't been a bedside nurse for—let's see, do the math—30 years.
Inside the brand-new high school gymnasium, I was directed to the glass, mirrored, and barred dance studio for my assignment. When the lead nurse came in, I proudly displayed my Medical Reserve Corps volunteer badge and stated my name.
She scanned her clipboard. “Okay, Inga. I'm going to have you in the observation area.” Aaaack, noooooooo, I thought, fake smiling at her. I had wanted to do anything but the observation area, where I'd have to be prepared for any emergency. My heart sank, and then I yanked it back up to where it belonged.
“OK, I'm happy to go anywhere you need me,” I said brightly.
Another nurse came in. “Good heavens! I've been off for two weeks, everything has changed. I'm the lead in the draw room, I'm overcaffeinated, and I have to figure out what's going on,” she said in a rapid clip.
The lead nurse took one look at the caffeine energy beaming out of her eyeballs and said, “I can give you Inga. Will that help?”
“Yes! Thank you. Let's go!” she said, pulling me down the hall. This was the best of all worlds; surely, I could handle drawing up a dose of medicine. Little did I know that even the simplest tasks would be so different from what I remembered and that syringes had gone high tech.
I was doing my part during the COVID-19 pandemic, volunteering my rusty skills to serve my community through the Medical Reserve Corps at the Sonoma County Public Health Division. My nursing license, which had languished for many years, was still active. I was trained, badged, and background checked.
After a too-brief orientation, I was ready to draw. I took the vial of Moderna vaccine in my hands as if it was an eggshell. Above all, I didn't want to do anything to harm the precious, lifesaving liquid. We were told not to shake vigorously and not to sharply flick the syringe to remove bubbles, something all nurses do by habit, even ones who haven't drawn up medication in 30 years. I cradled the vial in my palm, rolling it gently between my gloved hands to mix and warm the fluid. It still felt cold from being so recently thawed. I set it down and removed the syringes from their wrappers. One syringe looked normal, but I was flummoxed by the bulky plastic contraption hanging off some others. Another syringe looked normal, but the “VanishPoint” label made me wonder.
I popped the cap off the vial, wiped the top with an alcohol swab, and prepared to do the deed. I selected one of the eight skinny one-cubic centimeter syringes, and just as I was ready to puncture the cap, my cheerful tablemate looked over.
“Do you want me to share the tips I've learned?” she asked.
“Oh, my goodness, of course!” I replied. My partner walked me through everything, including why we had the different syringes (different needle sizes), how the needle guard worked, what the spring-loaded VanishPoint syringe did to protect nurses from needlesticks, and how they slowly drew the liquid in and out to remove bubbles.
I caught sight of her name tag; under her name it read “Student Nurse.” I smiled under my mask. That's perfect, I thought. The student is training the retired nurse.
I graduated from nursing school in 1982, the same year that Patricia Benner published her groundbreaking article in AJN, “From Novice to Expert.” Suddenly, everyone was talking about impostor syndrome. We probably all had it, that feeling that no matter how much training and book knowledge we had, we were still posing as someone with more confidence and competence than we felt. I certainly did. And I felt it now, too, after many years of administrative work and a few years of retirement.
The next week, during orientation, I stood next to some gray-haired volunteers. At the end, one said, “Here goes nothing. I hope I remember how to do this.”
“I was just here last week,” I said. “Do you want me to share my tips?”
“Yes, please do. That would make me feel so much better.”
“First of all, there's all these different syringes . . . ,” I started off, realizing that the strategies for squashing the feeling of being an impostor hadn't changed. Having a supportive mentor, letting go of perfectionism, and doing instead of fretting were all key. So many years ago, it was my nursing instructors and experienced staff nurses who got me through. This time it was the bright and capable students—and now I could help a fellow retired nurse figure it out, reclaiming the pleasure of helping others with my hard-earned clinical skills. I still had it.