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10 Questions

10 Questions You Always Wanted to Ask a Nurse

"There are two things I really struggle with – washing penises and cleaning under fingernails. I might be a nurse, but I'm also a human being."

This article originally appeared on VICE Germany

Nurses often have starring roles in romance novels or porn, but in real life their work is usually undervalued and underpaid. Honestly, there's probably no amount of money in the world that would compensate their daily efforts – we would all die horribly without them, while they have to endure the grossest and saddest parts of what makes us human. On top of that, there's an enormous nurse shortage in the UK, which will likely get worse after Brexit, as some hospitals rely on people from the EEA to make up 2 percent of nursing staff. Nurses are under a lot of pressure, and that pressure takes away time spent with patients.


"I'm happy when people understand that I'm doing more than just wiping strangers' arses," says 22-year-old nurse Jana from Lower Saxony in Germany. She has been working as a trained nurse in a German hospital for six months now, and says that in those six months she has never felt that she was given enough time for her patients, because every extra minute spent on one patient could have been spent on the 20 others waiting for her care.

Jana was kind enough to answer every question I ever wanted to ask someone who works with humans in their most dire moments.

VICE: Long toenails, faeces, puss – what do you find most disgusting about your patients?
Jana: There are two things I really struggle with – washing penises and cleaning under fingernails. I might be a nurse, but I'm also a human being. When you wash a penis, you have to really pull back the foreskin first. That's not always easy. Sometimes patients haven't washed for weeks and a lot of gunk collects down there. The smell can make me feel sick.
I feel similar about cleaning under people's finger nails – the stuff under there can be anything. A colleague of mine once threw up in a rubbish bin, but that never happened to me.

Do your male patients ever have an erection while you're washing them?
Sure, that happens. It's like a reflex; people can't help it. It's not that bad – and at least it makes a penis easier to wash. Recently I came into a room with a tray of food while a patient was playing with himself. He didn't stop after I came in – he wasn't in a great state mentally, at that point. Some people are really reduced to their primordial instincts in the state they're in. And I often get disgusting jokes, which can be pretty disturbing. Or I'll have patients who are able to wash themselves but say, "You're better at it." That makes me feel pretty uncomfortable.


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How often do you do things at work that a doctor should have done?
That happens every day – taking blood, administering intravenous catheters, starting an IV. Basically, many doctors just pass down work, and it really annoys me when they forget that it's actually their job. There's often a strong hierarchy in hospitals. Some doctors really enjoy letting you feel that they're the doctor and you're the nurse. One head doctor once even called me maeuschen ("little mouse"). I don't let those kind of things slide – I asked him if he was being serious. He wouldn't have thought anything of it otherwise. That's how it is, and some nurses accept it.

If you have to go to hospital, do you go to the one you work at?
Absolutely not. I know how things work there and I know how time constraints can make it difficult to keep up the standard of care for staff. And I'm not comfortable being operated on by people I know. I know how some doctors and nurses talk about patients while they're unconscious.

So what do they say about patients who are out of it? Do they mock patients' penis sizes, for example?
Sure, that can happen. Not just around the operating table – behind closed doors, too. But honestly, I think you need to have a sense of humour about it to be able to deal with the job. I mean, for example, it's awful seeing people with dementia. But it can also be really funny when someone tells you they're worried they'll miss the bus every three minutes. Sometimes you just have to laugh about it. But you always absolutely have to treat people with respect. A person with dementia might not know what's going on any more, but they still have the right to be treated like a human being.


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Have you ever stolen medication?
No, that would be wrong and also nearly impossible, I think. The storage room is always busy and the more serious stuff is locked away. Only one nurse has the key to that storage, and whenever you take out things like opioids or morphine it has to be documented.

Do you ever not wash your hands before or after patients?
We have a standard for hygiene at the hospital. That standard is very high, and it isn't always met, to be honest. But as long as you're not unsterile, that isn't that bad. That standard is basically just a theory, and you can't always live up to it in practice due to time constraints. It becomes critical if, for example, you wouldn't have enough time to clean wounds properly. I just make sure I take enough time for everyone – even though I might not always have it.

Have you had many patients fall in love with you?
I think "love" is too big a word, but I've been offered a few phone numbers. They might have tried a few others first, though, or just done it out of boredom. I've never had anything going on with a patient, but so far I've never really fancied anyone either.

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And do men outside the hospital ever ask you to play a sexy nurse at home when they find out your occupation?
I've never met a man who responded in that way. Sure, people have asked me to "play doctor" with them, or said it hurts between their legs – could I maybe check if everything is OK? But come on, I don't have time for guys like that.

Have you seen many people die?
I was there for the death of about six people. The worst time was the first time I saw a woman die – when I came into the room I realised right away that she was struggling to breathe. When patients die, their lungs often fill up with water and they start making this awful gurgling sound. She had almost suffocated when I came in. Morphine made her relax and breathe easier, but it was too late. I'll never forget that sound. People die every week in hospital – I'll often come in in the mornings to the news that a patient has died or was sent to a hospice. I wouldn't say that I got used to death, but I think that I've learnt do deal with it.

Jana sent us a picture of herself that ran with the original German version of the interview. After some personal backlash, she asked us to make her unrecognisable in her picture.