Editor’s Note: How often do we look at our own experiences in our work, and perceive them to be the centre of the universe? Whether its a crucial deadline for that report. Experiencing difficulty in finding that incredible story. Gaining funding for a new project. We all experience difficulties in our jobs, but how often do we look into the behind-the-scenes of a Registered Nurse? Well, the intricate details may surprise you. Here is Emily, to inform you of what being a nurse is actually like.
“You’ve probably seen some stuff where you work, hey?”
“I could never do your job.”
“I can’t imagine the stuff you deal with.”
“What’s the worst thing you’ve seen come through the doors?”
“How was work today?””
Well-meaning questions and statements that I often hear from people that know I work as a Registered Nurse in a Critical Care setting. When talking about work with my friends and family, I satisfy their curiosity with a vague but clear answer: “Well, you know, I’ve seen a little. It’s a different kind of job, that’s for sure. Work was busy, but it was a good day overall.” That is usually where I stop.
Though they may not realize it, most people do not really want to know what goes on behind the closed curtains surrounding a hospital bed. The realities of working within the Nursing Profession is that much of what we encounter on a daily basis is far beyond the comprehension of anyone who has never walked an 8 or 12 or 16 hour shift in our white leather shoes.
People often speak of the great respect they have for Nurses. They comment on how rewarding our job must be. They recognize what a sacrifice we make doing shiftwork. This receives a polite smile and nod from me. However, if I’m being honest, some days it doesn’t feel like I do anything but fill out paperwork. Others I’m about ready to throw in the towel by the time the next shift shows up from frustration of dealing with hospital politics and grumpy Physicians. Still, more days I fight tears. I sleep restlessly wondering of the outcome of my patient from the day before. Or I dread going back and dealing with an abusive patient or family member. In some settings, I’ve been lucky if I exit a shift without having something thrown at me. Or being cussed out by a patient. Even needing to apply restraints to avoid getting in the way of a flying fist or foot. There is very little routine or order to our day. In a split second, everything is tossed on its head. You pretty well always hit the ground running.
Worst Days of Their Lives
I meet most of my patients and their families during some of the worst days of their lives. As traumatizing as it is for a patient to be admitted to a Critical Care ward, it is just as traumatizing for family members when they see them on life support with tubes coming out of who knows where, and strangers in blue scrubs bustling in and out of the room. They really have little choice but to put their whole trust in myself and the medical team to do what is best for their loved one. This is a privilege that I deeply respect, and am often reminded of as I come alongside them to try and help them navigate whatever tragedy may have unfolded.
This is where my passion for my vocation is found. I spent four years studying, earning a Bachelor of Science. I trained with skills to assist in the medical recovery of patients under our care. Learning how to take vital signs. Listen to lung fields and heart sounds. Analyze laboratory results. Calculate medication administration. We were taught warning signs to look for. What to do when certain events occur. How to promote health. But as a Nurse, just showing up and “doing my job” belittles the heart behind why I chose to become a Registered Nurse.
Why I Love What I Do
I can do a good job in the workplace by going through the motions, but the stories that come to mind of why I love my job aren’t the exciting stories of adrenaline pumping and miraculous recoveries. They are the stories that remind me of life’s fragility, and the shift of perception that comes when we come face to face with mortality.
I have sat next to a patient, painstakingly tweezing bits of glass out of an abrasion on their face as gently as possible while they absorbed the news that their loved one was killed in the car crash, wiping away their tears as it mixed with blood wishing that there was something I could give them or do to try and take away the emotional pain that was far more debilitating than the physical pain of their injury.
I have held the hand of a young person whom Doctor’s feared may never regain full leg function while they screamed “This isn’t fair! This isn’t fair.” I have cared for victims of drunk driving, as well as drunk drivers. There have been successful business people and known gang leaders. Some who can do nothing but pour out thanks to the medical staff for the miracle it is that they are alive, and others who felt like failures after their incomplete suicide attempts.
Some have wonderful support systems and tools to rehabilitate and do very well after they leave the critical care setting. Others appear to have no one. They sit for days, alone in their hospital bed. Their only interaction being the hospital staff that comes in and out of their rooms often too busy and distracted to sit and engage with them beyond what is required for their treatments. In spite of aggressively doing everything within our medical power, there comes the time when we have to say there is nothing more we can do, and we have to know when to change our mindset to end of life care.
Yet in the midst of the tragedy and death, there is joy, and there is life. I have had a patient walk onto a unit to say hello – a patient whom the medical team did not think would ever speak again, let alone be independent. We have performed lifesaving interventions and seen people wake up. I’ve been awkwardly hugged by countless family members who hear their loved one’s voice for the first time in weeks after a breathing tube has been removed.
It’s the moments when you bundle a patient up, get all the help and monitors you need to wheel them outside for two minutes so they can feel the rain on their face after two months of lying in a hospital bed. Crowding into the only storage room with a north facing window at midnight to let a patient see the fireworks. Sneaking into a patient’s room to hang up balloons and banners for their eighteenth birthday. Watching them drink a milkshake when for weeks, the only nutrition their body has received is from a tube in their abdomen. It’s tucking a warm blanket around the feet of an elderly person and letting them know they are safe, and you’re watching over them.
Yes, we deal with heavy things every day we are on the job. Every Nurse has to learn how to process what we see and do in their own way. On their own terms. A friend once remarked how Nurses develop a dark sense of humour because the only reaction there is besides laughter would be to break down and cry. It could be easy to shut off emotions and try not to be impacted by what happens behind the heavy doors of the Intensive Care Unit, but I make an effort to not let this happen.
Realistically though, I wouldn’t be able to do my job if I let every single moment of sadness put me on the sidelines. It is heartbreaking and sad when any patient dies, and we do what we can to support their family in the grieving process. But when I leave that room, I have to keep going, because the patient next door is still very much alive, and they deserve a Nurse who is clear headed and ready to do whatever they can to help them survive.
I am a Critical Care Nurse. Yes, I’ve seen a lot of ‘stuff’ that people can’t imagine. Things you couldn’t even make up. No, not everyone is cut out to do our job. The worst thing I’ve dealt with at work is still too hard to talk about. Sometimes, “my day was good” is the best answer I can give. But even on the hardest days, I am thankful for the privilege it is to put on my scrubs, walk into a patient’s room and say: “Hello. My name is Emily, and I’m going to be your Nurse for the next twelve hours”.
*If you enjoyed reading about what being a nurse is actually like, you may enjoy reading about what it takes to be a lawyer.