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But I Digress: A Nursing Pinning Reflection…

But I Digress: A Nursing Pinning Reflection…
Photo credit: Gary Riggs

The following is adapted from a faculty reflection delivered at the Saint Mary’s College Pinning ceremony on May 17, 2024. 
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Congratulations, class of 2024 nursing graduates! You made it! 

Remember when I got to address you at your White Coat ceremony? Your first clinical courses were just under way, and maybe you were wondering if you’d survive until this day.  

But you did! All the late-night study sessions and early clinicals, so many exams and papers, the good times and the not so good times, but now the joy – and relief – of here and now. You made it indeed! Praise God!

It’s a tremendous honor to be addressing you as a class today – I am truly grateful. Before I begin, I want to make a quick shout out to Morgan’s Grandpa Bob, who goes to my parish. I know his steadfast daily prayers supported his granddaughter and, by extension, all of us these past years – me included! Many thanks, Bob – and that goes for everybody here who has been supporting and praying for these graduates – and Saint Mary’s – over the years.  

“These graduates.” “These graduates.” It’s so funny to hear myself saying those words with reference to you because wasn’t it just yesterday we were in med-surg together? Back then, your anxieties about starting actual patient care were more than matched by my anxieties as the new faculty guy. 

And, although I was new to the faculty, I wasn’t new to teaching, and I came here with 18 years of idiosyncrasies and classroom quirks. One of those quirks you picked up on right away: “But I digress.” It’s a catch phrase – almost a tic – that I latched onto at some point. My wife thinks I stole it from a priest friend of ours in Chicago…but I digress.

There it is! And it’s a mainstay in class, as you know, a regular interjection that marks the drift of my lectures awayfrom the nurse-y subject at hand – pathophysiology, nursing interventions – away from stuff like that to whatever side topic my meandering sub-conscious wanders into. 

Maybe a classic movie or some event in the news; perhaps a theological observation or some anecdote about my adventures in lawncare. Often it was something about my family. Often it involved tears. 

I wonder: How often did you say to yourself, “Oh, no. Here he goes, off on some tangent again!” I dunno’, but it seemed like most of you didn’t mind most the time. You laughed at it, even expected it, even celebrated it! Ella even made “I digress” stickers for our clipboards and laptops. 

Basically “I digress” became a meme of sorts, but, you know, there’s some intentionality behind the joke. Digressions expand the context of what’s under consideration, and it’s one of the big differences between a liberal arts college and a trade school. 

Think of it in terms of another familiar phrase of mine: In five years. “In five years,” you’ve heard me say, “nobody will care what grade you got” – on a quiz, on an exam. “What they will care about,” I continue,“is the RN on your badge and the smile on your face.”

It’s true! In five years, do you really think anybody will ask about your GPA when you’re about to give a shot or insert a catheter? Of course not! There’s the RN badge – a sign of the state’s confidence in your knowledge and skills; andthere’s the smile – a sign of your heart, a sign of your willingness to cheerfully serve, even if you’re not feeling all that cheerful at the moment.

You see, that’s the kind of thing that makes nursing school – at least this nursing school – so unusual: It’s not about you knowing everything by the time you graduate – nobody does! There’s always more to learn – always

Instead, it’s about becoming someone: the kind of someone who not only gets the job of nursing done – the pills, the plumbing, the pest control – but also pours herself out for those she’s caring for. 

Consider that passage from Isaiah (61.1-4) that Emma just read. The Prophet describes what the Lord has done for him(and by extension, caregivers like us) – that he and we have been anointed by God to do good things for others: to heal broken hearts, to replace mourning with gladness, to proclaim liberty and release and God’s favor. That’s a pretty decent description of what we try to do beyond our assessments, med passes, and charting.  

To outsiders, maybe nursing is mainly about those latter things – the tasks, in other words, the product and the “customer service.” Sure, let ‘em think that’s what it’s all about, and, make no mistake, we do have to provide those things efficiently and effectively. 

Yet, there’s a personal, humane side of nursing that doesn’t fit neatly into business models and spreadsheets. And because of that, it can be dismissed as extra, even irrelevant – a “digression,” if you will, from what really matters to the bottom line. 

My commission to you, my beloved students, my soon-to-be colleagues – my charge to you is this: Digress anyway. Digress with abandon. Digress in your caring and comforting, listening and loving, soothing and sacrificing. There’s a hurting world out there that needs you to digress in this way. And you won’t regret it. Promise. 
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