Slowly, those feelings went away. It took about a year and a half before I could say "I'm a nurse" without feeling like a fraud. Watching other new nurses go through orientation after me really helped--it showed me exactly how many people are watching your every move as an RN.
So, and with full thanks to Faithful Minon Pip, who said, "Yo, dude, you need to write a 'surviving as a nurse' post", here are tips for Surviving As A New Nurse, Dude. Yo:
This is the single most important piece of advice I have for new nurses. Right after report, but before you hit the floor, pee. Emptying your bladder will clear your mind and take one small worry away. With any luck, it'll be hours before you need to pee again (unless you're me) and you'll have a chance to get things done before then.
2. You are not going to kill anybody. No, really, you're not.
There are three reasons for this, so I will subset them under the main point:
A. Humans can take an unbelievable amount of damage before they keel over.
You're unlikely to do the sort of damage it would take to kill somebody yourself; it generally takes a fair number of tiny mistakes that add up. At every stage of the way, there's the chance to ask questions, to catch problems, and to stop bad things from happening. Your job, therefore, is to be The Elephant's Child and ask questions about anything you don't completely understand and feel comfortable with.
B. Everybody is looking over your shoulder.
Yeah, you as the RN have ultimate accountability and responsibility for what happens, but remember: you have other nurses, pharmacists, and docs checking you all the time. Lean on them. See "asking questions", above.
C. Humans can take an unbelievable amount of damage before they keel over.
This is exactly the first point, but I'd like to take a different tack on it: I have had patients with potassium or magnesium or calcium or pH levels that were totally incompatible with life, and those patients weren't even all that sick. I have had patients with blood pressures that would make your eyes bug out and others with pressures that made me wonder if they were perfusing everything. I have had patients missing legs, arms, and (once) half of a body. All of those folks lived, and they all did mostly fine. It's all about what that person is used to. For some people, walking around with a calcium of 5.3 is totally legit.
3. The First Rule Of Nursing Is: If You Have To Fuck With It, It's Wrong*.
There was a story years ago about a new nurse in my orientation class who ran oral contrast through a central line, thus injuring (but not killing) her patient (see, we really can take a lot!). In order to do that, she had to set up a Rube Goldbergian series of tubes and connectors, find a certain type of syringe that would fit the end of it, and then administer the oral contrast bit by bit, because it's very thick stuff.
Think of how much she had to fuck with that to make it work. If you're having to force something to make sense or work, STOP. Look around. Ask if you're doing it right. Medical equipment, med-administration rules, and protocols are so bulletproof these days that it's work to screw them up.
4. Find somebody whose shoulder you can cry on.
This might be a preceptor, a fellow orientee, a more experienced nurse, or your mom. Whoever it is, find that person and use them as a sounding board for when you do something really stoopid. You *will* do stoopid things now and again--all nurses do, all through their careers--and it's important that you find someone who understands and can make you feel like less of a donkey.
5. Remember that things will get easier.
It's hard at first to get your skills and time-management and organization down. You might miss lunch or end up with a bladder infection, but that will change. Eventually, some things will become so second-nature that you'll have to double-check to make sure you did them. Eventually, changing a bed with a patient in it will be simple. And eventually, you'll have time for lunch. Don't despair.
6. Don't be afraid to ask for help.
Delegation is a beautiful thing. Find the people who are willing to help you and lean on them.
7. Don't be afraid to ask questions, even stupid ones.
I ask questions all the time, sometimes the same ones over and over in a shift. Nobody thinks I'm an idiot. Obsessive-compulsive, yes, and perhaps with a little short-term memory deficit, but not stupid. They do it too. Questions are good.
8. Be kind to the techs and the unit secretary, for they will save your ass someday.
This one needs no explanation.
9. Likewise, be kind to the doctors, for mostly they love to teach and are fairly nice people.
If you find one who's a jerk, avoid him or her at all costs until you feel more confident. Nothing will make you fade faster than being yelled at by an asshole with "MD" after his/her name.
10. And do find time to be kind to yourself.
You didn't spring fully-fledged from some god's forehead, and neither did any other nurse currently in existence. Even Cherry Ames screwed up now and then, and she learned things every day of her career. You will, too. Be easy on yourself: you've taken on a very tough job, in a challenging, rapidly-changing profession, and the whole of it is something that nobody but another nurse could really understand.
*Funny story about Jo's First Rule Of Nursing: I had a student precepting with me the other week in the CCU, and I told her as we started, "Remember: the first rule of nursing is, 'if you have to fuck with it, it's wrong'." She immediately said, "Oh, my gosh! You read Head Nurse, too! I love that blog!" I concurred solemnly that the writer was a damn genius, the crafter of elegant and spare prose without equal in the world today, and then we went on with our day.