In 2005, at the age of 43, I began nursing school. Over the next two years, I would learn how to properly fold a washcloth (as if after raising two sons, I needed a lesson), how to don sterile gloves, (after throwing out 25 pairs), write care plans (that all sound alike), hold my bladder for 8 to 10 hours (praying that I wouldn’t need to laugh, sneeze, or cough), and many other useful “skills.”
But I was ill-prepared for the real world of nursing. The skills were necessary, of course, but let me explain a little bit about what I’ve learned since then, and share with you a quick glimpse of a day in the life of an ICU nurse.
The alarm goes off at 5 a.m., I shower, do my hair and make-up. Start the car (because it’s winter, 15 degrees, I don’t have a garage, and I’ll probably have to shovel my way out after cleaning the car off). I’m on the road by 6:15 a.m. I find my usual parking spot (yes, the same spot every time), and walk the long walk into the hospital, punch in, and head to the kitchen. The night shift nurses (and friends) have been kind. They made an extra-strong pot of coffee for the day shift.
“Did you sleep well?” “How are the roads?” That’s what we hear from the outgoing shift.
And from the oncoming shift: “Get some sleep!” “Be careful driving!” “See you tonight!” No one could listen to our interactions and doubt that we care about the other shift. We do. We are a team. Well… more like a family.
And I need also to mention – It’s not unusual for nurses to massage each other’s shoulders while giving report, or french braid each other’s hair when they finally get a chance to sit.
On New Year’s Day, our night manager has glasses of non-alcoholic champaign to welcome the day nurses as we enter the unit. (And the extra-strong coffee is also brewing in the kitchen).
We work 12-hour shifts, and OFTEN go without breaks. We know the names of each others’ children, often the names of each others’ ex-husbands, and the struggles of those going without sleep to finish their advanced degrees. We get excited waiting to see if our friends who applied to CRNA school were accepted (even though we would prefer to keep them on our floor with us forever). We share Sunday morning coupons, and some even run marathons and take their families camping together. When someone gets ill, we cash in vacation time, collect money, and sell candy bars, and whatever else we can do to get them through financially. We hug each other, tease each other, get angry with each other, cry together, reconcile, hug, and then head to the Red Coat Tavern for a burger after work.
When it comes to our patients, we not only care for them, we also care for their families. We know our patients and their families for long, long periods of times – And I’m not talking about days. I’m talking about months, and sometimes years. And we get attached to many of them! We cut snowflakes out of coffee filters for cancer patients and tape them up all over the room in an attempt to get them to smile just once more. We paint pink fingernails on Down Syndrome patients who want, need, and deserve to feel like princesses. We have thumb wars and arm wrestles with intubated patients to trick them into exercising their limbs. We listen to them share their heartaches and fears at the most vulnerable time in their lives, and call their children for them so that they can say “I love you” one more time. We scrub feet, shave beards, and de-tangle hair. We take last requests, and spend our breaks going to the grocery store so we can get Vernors and vanilla ice cream to make one more “Boston Cooler” for someone who will die in a few hours. We listen to families vent about their family dysfunctions, and try to diffuse situations. We fall in love with our patients and their families, and we cry with their loved ones when they pass. We call priests, chaplains, rabbi’s, and imams. We sometimes pray with a frightened patient, or to comfort a family member. We sing silly songs while we bathe our patients who are awake – anything to make them laugh. I’ll forever cherish the memory of one gal who signed every fitted sheet with her autograph in baby powder. (She made a lot of people laugh). We share our faiths, and some of our most intimate thoughts and beliefs with each other – It’s difficult NOT to when death is such a reality during your every shift. We don’t always agree, but we respect each other, let each other talk it out, and we listen, and hug. We hug often.
After our patients pass, we call our bereavement representative who comes quickly with coffee and bagels for the grieving family in the conference room. Us? We prepare the patient’s body for delivery to the morgue, wait for the room to get cleaned, and get our next patient – the next patient and family who will be really special, and we’ll undoubtedly get attached to just as quickly as the last. No coffee and bagels for us. No bereavement time for us. Nope – Just on to the next patient.
By now, it’s not all that uncommon for that cute early morning hair-do to be flat from being crushed by hats, or the make-up to have been taken off by the mask. It’s early afternoon, and nurses are wondering why they bother to do their hair and put on make-up. We are also thankful to have remembered the extra swipes of deodorant this morning. A hot shower is starting to sound really, really good. It’s almost report time, so it’s time to put that extra-strong pot of coffee on for the night shift. We hope they slept well. We hope the roads aren’t bad for their drive in.
I’ve had many different jobs during my 56 years, nursing being the most recent. But aside from being a soldier in the Army, at no other job have I had the privilege of saying I cherish my co-workers, and love them like family, like that of my nursing job. Nowhere else do my co-workers know I don’t eat fish, Thai, or Chinese food. At no other job, do sugar-coated gummy bears, “kettle crack,” or cocoa-dusted almonds make everything okay.
Inevitably, someone will call on the drive home. They want you to stop by, just for a little while. They don’t understand the things you have had splashed on you today. They don’t understand you left the house at 6 a.m., and don’t get home until 8:30 p.m., and have only a few hours to sleep before returning. They don’t understand you may have held someone’s hand while they passed today, and that just for tonight, you need to go to Red Coat with someone who understands. Give them that space. Don’t be offended.
Tonight, if you know a nurse – Don’t say a word. Just give them a hug. If you’re a family member in the hospital and you wish to do something nice for the nurses – please know, sugar-coated gummy bears can fix almost anything.