Nurses are astute clinicians often endowed with a keen helping of intuitive discernment. This ability to sense that something is wrong — or about to go wrong — has likely saved countless patients’ lives over centuries of nursing care. Whatever it is and wherever it comes from, a nurse’s intuition is something we can choose to pay heed to and to increasingly nurture, sharpen, and trust as the years go by.

The Nurse’s “Spidey-sense”

When I was in nursing school for my associate’s degree, I had a professor who was a long-time nurse of considerable skill and knowledge. She was an excellent storyteller (always a good attribute in an effective teacher), and I remember several of her stories today.

One story that stands out is when she described what it’s like when you’ve been a nurse long enough that your nurse’s intuition is a reliable tool of clinical assessment and nursing “air traffic control.” The air traffic she referred to was the constant barrage of information and data coming at you from all sides. When your intuition is allowed to live and breathe, those inner feelings of knowing can sometimes mean the difference between making an excellent clinical judgment call rather than possibly missing the mark.

The professor often referred to this power as a nurse’s Spidey-sense, akin to the inner radar-like warning system with which Spider-Man was so well-equipped. If you’re familiar with this comic book phenomenon, what would have happened to Spider-Man so many times if he’d dismissed his Spidey-sense as just so much mental noise? He may have been attacked unawares, missed the opportunity to save a helpless citizen in distress, or otherwise ignored a clear signal that it was time to perk up the ears and swing into action once the source of his inner tingle could be determined.

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(Another story my professor told was one where she and her husband were in bed being rather amorous, and she developed a sudden-onset headache. Paying attention to the signs, she realized that his nitroglycerin patch had come unglued from his arm. She affixed itself to her, thus flooding her body with the medicine, dilating her blood vessels, and causing a splitting headache. While this wasn’t exactly her nurse’s intuition, her clinical judgment was unclouded enough to realize something was wrong, and she could remove the patch and relieve her symptoms. If memory serves, we teased her mercilessly about this story for quite some time. But I digress.)

Listening for the “Tingle”

In the Spider-Man comic books, I recall his Spidey-sense being graphically shown by the artist using squiggly lines emanating from Spider-Man’s head like an energetic crown as he picked up on something not being quite right in the air around him.

There are schools of energy medicine where this might be referred to as disturbances in “the field,” some nurses who have practiced meditation, Reiki, Qi Gong, Tai Chi, martial arts, or other endeavors may readily understand what this type of energy and experience signifies.

Anyone can learn to listen to their intuition, and certain practices and techniques can strengthen intuition. However, one thing that intuition calls for is for us to listen to its call when it happens. For some, it might be a tingle in or around the head like Spider-Man; for others, it might be a chill down the spine, the hairs on the back of the neck pricking up, or perhaps gooseflesh up and down the arms. Or maybe it might simply be an inner knowing — perhaps that still small voice noted in the Bible — that something isn’t right.

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Whatever form in which it comes, the well-trained nurse with keen clinical skills, considerable knowledge, and the wisdom to listen to the tingle of their intuition may very well save a life, catch an error, prevent a patient from crashing, or otherwise save the day because they took the time to tune in.

Don’t Ignore It — Nurture It

A nurse’s intuition isn’t something that can be effectively taught in a nursing textbook or lecture. Still, the nurse interested in learning to trust their inner knowing can use that skill to become a highly successful clinician and a powerful healer.

We can ignore that still small voice inside of us — perhaps at our peril or that of our patients — or we can choose to nurture, feed, and water it. As thoughtful nurses, we can make sure that when a tingle of recognition of a problem or danger arises, we’ll be more likely to pay attention to the signs, listen carefully, and take action when action is called for.

If your nurse’s Spidey-sense occasionally sets you alight like a flashing signal at a dangerous railroad crossing, learn to focus your attention and use it to be a more effective clinician and a more successful nurse.

Minority Nurse is thrilled to feature Keith Carlson, “Nurse Keith,” a well-known nurse career coach and podcaster of The Nurse Keith Show as a guest columnist. Check back every other Thursday for Keith’s column.

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