Face to face with a bully. Lead me, don’t manage me!

I was so excited to have finally made it though it seemed like I had spent a life time training and all the zeal was at zero. The only consolation and motivation was that I was going to be earning money I could call my money.
The system then was that you had to serve the government for at least one year before you looked for employment anywhere else. This was to pay back the government for the almost free training they provided. So one had no choice as to where they were posted. They posted you wherever they needed nurses, especially rural areas. But who would want to go to a remote area at the start of life as a working class? Only those who were married were posted to their places of request upon producing a marriage certificate. And so I was posted to work at this same hospital (UTH) where I had just finished my training because I was married in the city, and so were my friends Cathy and Ennie. My only worry was that I might be sent to work in the medical department. That was going to be a prescription for misery.

It was such a relief when after all the registration process at the nursing council, I finally reported to the Director of Nursing who posted me to go and work in the acute medical/surgical unit. It was scary to think about all those acute and seriously ill patients, but it was good ground to gain experience as a newly qualified nurse. It turned out that the experience I gained from there was not only on how to care for the critically ill, but how to manage an overbearing boss, a boss who didn’t like you because you are young, straight from training and married. And for that reason, you are chosen as a target for her bullying. Good lessons come in disguise!

I went to my new work place shortly after 10.00 a.m. I spoke to the nurse in charge who told me that the unit sister had gone to administration department and I should wait for her. My waiting was not long because the sister came back 10 to 15 minutes later. I didn’t see her come in because she came from behind me where the main entrance was. Like in the army and as is the culture in my country, juniors are required to stand up for their seniors when they approach and when talking to them as a sign of respect. But because I didn’t see the sister come in, I didn’t stand up for her. I realised there was someone behind me when I heard the nurse in charge who was standing in front of me talk to someone over me telling her that there was a new nurse. I turned to check who was there only to find that it was the sister as she walked away towards her office saying, “a new nurse who doesn’t even stand up for her seniors.” I knew I was in trouble because this ward sister had a reputation of bullying others and the time I did my placement on that unit as a student, she had been on leave. So now, it was my turn to face mighty Sashay as everyone called her. I had heard a lot about her from my friends and so I braced myself. I followed her to her office and I immediately apologised for not standing up saying that I didn’t see her come in. she told me to sit and as I sat down, she noticed my engagement and wedding rings on my finger and the first question I was asked was, “are you married?”
“Yes I am, why do you ask?” I asked her.
“Well,” she said, “I only asked because I saw your wedding band.”
“That’s exactly what my wedding band means. Any problem with that?” I asked jokingly not realising that it didn’t sound like a joke to her. I foolishly set myself up for trouble. Naughty twenty three year old new nurse!
She made a grimace as she said “no.”

She sounded very rude as she went on to tell me about the unit routine and how I was expected to put in my very best because “ lazy people are not welcome on this unit and we want to keep our standards high. The next two weeks, you are expected to work with an experienced nurse so you can brush up your skill and after that you will be taking patients on your own. I’ll sort out your off duty later in the afternoon, but tomorrow, come in the morning.”
“ Yes Sister, thank you.” I said and I walked out of her office. What did I thank her for? For being rude to me? God help me, or was I just being polite? Yes. Two wrongs never make a right, so I guess I was trying to neutralise the tension by showing some respect. If there’s anything like being a naturally nice person, I can say I’m that.

The following day I reported for work at 07.30 a.m. and I happened to walk in at the same time as the sister. I greeted her , but she did not answer back. I thought she didn’t hear. I repeated my greeting, a little bit louder this time, she just turned and looked at me spitefully and walked on without answering me. What could I do? Nothing. I told myself that I did my part and her part was to answer, so if she didn’t, I was not going to make her do it and that was her choice, anyway. I vowed never to greet her again, and true to my word, I never greeted her the whole year I worked on that unit. What a welcome to the working world. From that day on, it was trouble upon trouble for me and I never really enjoyed my work life. Each time I went to work, I was always going to answer for something I did wrong. Nothing I did ever pleased Sashay. If I asked the other nurses why she treated me like that, they said it was because I was young and married and she was not and was desperately looking for someone to marry her. She was simply jealousy and was taking out her frustrations on me. She made me the dumping site for her frustrations and she was always picking on me. I would have a patient at the end of the unit and she would stand on the opposite end and yell, “hey you, you,” and I would ignore her knowing that it was me she was yelling at, “that’s not the way they do suctioning, you, you can’t hear me.” I might have not been doing it correctly, being newly qualified, but that was not the way to show me. I needed someone to demonstrate the right way and not just yelling. She was such a bully and she really bullied me in front of everyone. If a patient I looked after in my shift died in the next shift, I would find a note from her saying I should write a statement because the patient died because of my negligence.
Thank God the departmental matron was an understanding and good person who knew how to lead and build upcoming staff. This was evident in the way matron Angel handled my issue with Sashay. Sashay had reported me to the matron that I was a very rude nurse who refused to be taught by her. She told the matron that she wanted to teach me how to write a report but I refused.

That was not the case. Sashay had wanted me to write a statement explaining why and how a patient I looked after in my shift died. But I could not because I was not God and I didn’t know why that person died. The said patient was critically ill, unconscious, intubated and on a ventilator after being involved in a road traffic accident. When I took over the care of this patient in the morning from the night staff, on assessing him, I heard a strange sound coming from his endo tracheal tube. I brought this to the attention of the nurse in charge who advised me to call the Anaesthetist from theatre to come and check if the tube was in the right place. I called the Anaesthetist who came immediately and repositioned the tube and said it was okay. There was equal air entry on both sides of the patient’s lungs and all his other observations were within his normal limits. Being a critical care unit, patient’s observations were done every hour, on the hour. Shortly after my patient had been seen by his doctors, I observed a drop in his blood pressure and a rapid pulse. I informed the doctors who said I should continue to observe and that they would see the patient later. I let the nurse in charge know and told her that I was not happy with the patient’s dropping BP. She called the doctors and one of them came and re examined the patient. He increased the fluid administration and said there was nothing much he could do because they had done all they could do. “ just keep on observing.” he told me and he left.

My shift came to an end and it was such a relief to leave. I handed over to the afternoon staff and explained all that we did in my shift. At the end of the afternoon shift, just before the night staff came on, the patient died and this patient was not for resuscitation, according to the doctors.
That was the patient Sashay wanted me to write a statement on saying that I neglected him in my shift. I told her I was not going to write any statement and that she should go and read the report I wrote at the end of my shift to which she replied, “there is nothing in that report. You neglected that patient. He shouldn’t have died with proper care.”

A few days later, when we finished handing over after my night shift, she called me to her office and said she was still waiting for the statement. I told her I was not going to write any statement. She became furious. “I’m commanding you to write that statement! I should find it on my desk tomorrow morning” she yelled. This sounded very funny to me and I laughed because I thought she was going mad.
“Don’t you get it, Sashay? I said I’m not writing any statement. If you so need one, why don’t you write it yourself. I wrote what happened to that patient and the care I gave in the report I wrote. And in case you have forgotten, this is a hospital where we report on patient’s care. It is not a police station for us to start writing statements.” I calmly told her.
“Yes,” she yelled back, “you should write a statement so that it goes in your file in HR so that everyone knows what a bad nurse you are.”

At that point it dawned on me what her motive was and I realised that she was just trying to destroy me and my career. I was the target for this bully. I thought of everything she had tried to implicate me in and how she always talked about writing statements. It was a new day for me. I looked her straight in the eye and said, “ So, that is your mission to try and frame me as a bad nurse? Just because I’m young and married and you are not? What has marriage got to do with work? That’s my life outside the hospital and your not being married is your life outside the hospital. When we come here, we come to help those who are hurting and not to compete as to who has what and who hasn’t got what. Don’t let your social life dictate how you work and treat your subordinates. You are supposed to be an authority figure from whom I should learn what it means to be a good nurse, and this is what you teach me. If this is how all ward sisters behave, I don’t want to become one!”
At this point, she was hyper-ventilating and I thought she was going to slap me and I prepared myself for that. Instead, she said, “you are a very rude nurse.” to which I replied, “ I’m made to become rude because of your actions. You are such a bully and I’m not going to take anymore of this from you. If you have problems, try to sort them out or if you can’t, leave them at home or at least at the gate. Don’t bring them here and take them out on me.” I was so young and innocent then. If I had known what I know now, I would not have wasted time answering back because that simply aggravated the situation. I was a mixture of being assertive and aggressive which does not solve any problem . To some extent, it worked.
I walked out of her office and she followed me. “ You! you don’t know that I write your annual confidential report which goes into your file in HR?” she threatened.
“ Write whatever rubbish you want to write, I’ll not sign it. Have you forgotten that I have to agree to what you have written and sign for that report to be put in my file?” I answered back, this time angry, because I knew I was dealing with a wolf in an angel’s uniform.
Confidential reports were a way of appraisals in those days.

She could not do much with me, that was why she went and reported me to the matron. I was called to the matron’s office the following day after my night shift. I walked in and matron Angel smiled as she greeted me and told me to sit down. She started by asking how I was finding my work life and I frankly told her that it was hell on earth. I explained to her how the past eight months had been a living hell for me. Work for me was a battle ground and I was always scared to go to work. I felt like judgement had already began for me while on earth! Emotionally, I was burning!

Matron Angel apologised for not being so supportive to new staff and promised to be there for us in future. She made me feel comfortable and supported after which she went on to ask me about the issue at hand. She asked me to explain why I was refusing to be taught by the ward sister. I explained to her that I was teachable but the sister never tried to teach me anything. I told her about all the confrontations I had with the sister and the issue of being told to write statements. She was so understanding. After listening, she then turned to Sashay and gave her a teaching I myself learned from. She said,

“Sister Sashay, I’m sorry I have not been there to support you in developing new staff, and I understand your heavy work load. Being a leader is like being a mother to your children in your own home. You don’t expect children to learn good manners without you teaching them. You have to speak to them in a way that they will understand you. And you have to lead by example. If you want to teach your child something, do it yourself first and your child will learn from you. If you had wanted to teach this young girl how to write a report, you should have done it yourself so she could learn from you. You telling her to do what you know she doesn’t know is not helping at all. A report and a statement are two different things. This young girl is new in this field and I suppose it is not easy for young people to work in such a scary and busy place as your unit. This is where they need all the help and support they can get from us as their leaders in order to make them comfortable and fit in. you can’t start putting statements in this young girl’s file just to blacken her name. According to her explanations, she did what she could do for the patient and we can’t blame her for the death of the patient. The Doctors could not do more than they did, and so this girl could not perform miracles, unless you expected her to. she has just finished her training and what she needs is you to show her the way. Both of you should have come to me the minute you started having problems instead of leaving it so long.
Next time, lead her, don’t manage her. I know you can do better than that.”
That was my first lesson on leadership. Lead people, don’t manage them!
I felt like my sins were forgiven and was being transferred from hell to heaven! Mercy triumphed over judgement!
Matron offered to transfer me to another ward but I said it was okay because in two months time, I was taking leave without pay for one year because I was going to join my husband in Norway where he was studying.
My remaining two months on the unit were a lot calmer. Thanks to matron Angel.

If it comes your way, then God trusts you with it. You can handle it.

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