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3 min Read
Published May 10, 2014

Nursing Then And Now: 12 Surprising Similarities and Differences

I started my nursing career in 1972. I have worked in hospitals from South Carolina to New Orleans, to Mississippi, to Western and Eastern North Carolina. After 38 years of nursing (17 years of that in ICU/CCUs) I consider myself an expert on how the nursing field has changed.

Glass Mercury Thermometers

In 1972 we used glass thermometers that contained mercury. Mercury expands when it’s heated, so if a thermometer was washed in hot water it could shoot out and contaminate God only knows what. I wonder how many people were poisoned because a kid or untrained person unknowingly dropped, or worse still, washed a thermometer in hot water! When taking temperatures for 7-10 patients, each patient’s thermometer had to be shaken down sharply to get the mercury down below the 97 degree mark. Shaking your wrist sharply to get all of those thermometers down is hard. Now we use electronic thermometers with little plastic covers and the thermometer resets after each use.


Dispensing Medications

In the 70’s nurses had little trays with all of our patients’ medicine cards, and each card was topped with a souffle cup full of each patient’s pills. (It was a miracle more mistakes weren’t made!) Now we pull each patient’s medicines out one at a time from a central machine, which allows only medicines to be removed from that patient’s file.

Nursing Then And Now-- Four Decades Of Change - 1

Intravenous Medications Have Changed

To calculate the rate the infusion in the earlier days of nursing, we had to count the drops per minute. We held our watches beside the drip chambers and increased or decreased the drip rate repeatedly until the drips were at the proper rate. Now we have computers that deliver the medicine or fluid at the correct set rate.


Nursing Uniforms

Nurses once wore “their glory,” another name for their school caps. Bobby pins held them in place and had to be readjusted during the day when knocked around by IV tubings or patients. White uniforms, stockings (or socks if wearing pant suit uniforms) and white clinic tie-up shoes were the ONLY uniforms allowed.

RELATED: Homeless In The Hospital: You Never Know When Kindness Is Key.

I never understood why white was chosen in such a potentially messy profession. These days, no one wears a nurse’s cap. Now whatever color your unit or hospital chooses is fine for your uniform. Your uniform is now a styled top with matching solid colored pants. Clogs, good quality walking/running shoes with socks are allowed now instead of the clunky clinic shoes.


Patient Advocacy

Patients looked to us to be their advocates to the doctors. Now the doctors and the patients depend more on us to communicate for them to each other.


Patient Attitude about Hospital Admission

Many older patients thought of the hospital as the place where their older family members went to die. Now, hopefully, most people think of the hospital as a place of healing and care.


Stresses of Nursing

The stress of nursing comes down to patient loads, lack of help, and increasing demand to learn new things. Now, nurses have many of the same stresses but also have computerized charting and drug distribution.

There are also constantly new medicines to learn about, and new policies to go to class for or be responsible for. There are more treatments, tests, orders, procedures, known diseases, symptoms, and complications to be aware of and a greater potential for lawsuits. More emotional and physical stress comes from under-staffing and patient loads, less time to take breaks or even go to the bathroom sometimes.


Bedside Nursing Skills

Sick and suffering people need not only our technical training, but our compassion and support. Today we have these same challenges but we have more understanding of emotional stress and its effects on our patients, how they deal with it and its effects on us. We have learned to be patient with the “demanding patient,” the angry family, the overloaded co-worker, and ourselves when we are stressed out.


Unchanged Facets of Nursing

Many technical changes have taken place over my career in nursing began. But there are many things that have not changed. Seeing a suffering patient relax, smile, and nod off to sleep after receiving their pain medicine has always been rewarding. Decreasing a patient’s fears by promising to stay with them until they go to sleep has always been rewarding.

RELATED: Struggling With Cancer, Patient Performs Inspiring Acts Of Kindness.

Watching a paralyzed patient progress from depression and frustration to enthusiasm and independence again has always been a pleasure beyond words! Comforting a dying patient after a long illness, though sad, gives relief to the patient and their families. It gives nurses feelings of pride that we can provide some support for them.


People Have the Same Basic Needs

Over the years I have also found that people from different cultures or beliefs all have basic needs, fears and emotions; all of them love someone and most are loved by someone. They all need our patience, understanding, education, and emotional support.


Nurses Have the Same Basic Caring Attitudes

Nurses have not changed that much in their innate compassion, responses to the pain or suffering of others. They still weep with families. They still spend time with patients when they really don’t have the time to. They still give a good night hug to a child or elderly patient or even a kiss on the cheek to someone lonesome. I have found the emotional and physical strength of nurses to be amazing.

Nursing Then And Now-- Four Decades Of Change -2

Nurses are Healers

Nurses touch, help, teach, support, heal and comfort in death. Our very presence, knowledge, compassion, and action is vital to our patients’ care. We are with them all day and see changes when they happen, get lab results and notify the doctors, admit patients, share their concerns. We forge relationships quickly with total strangers and gain their trust, which is a miraculous feat in itself both then and now.

There have been many changes in nursing over 38 years. Nursing has grown and changed in some ways. But the basic people skills we have may be the most important unchanged healing offering we have to give.

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  • Elaine Estes


  • I love stories and legends, whether they be educational, humourous, silly or touching. I grew up on the fairy tales and later grew to love legends from different times and different cultures. Find other stories and legends from Elaine, by visiting her own blog “joyful2bee“. All my articles.

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