I have been sitting here, literally, for hours, trying to find a way to describe in the most detailed and honest way, a 12-hour shift in the life of an ICU nurse. I have blogged about this many times before, describing the loveliest of patients and the most tender of moments spent with them in their last hours. But I have felt the need for months now, to tell you about the other days – the days spent with the least loveliest of people, and the most violent of situations we encounter. I want to tell you about the shifts when you get to your car after a 12-hour day, and all you can do is ball your brains out. I want to tell you why we sometimes have a tendency to lash out at the first person who annoys us when we get home, most likely a family member, as we walk in the door exhausted.
I’ve started this over and over and over…….. But I’m not doing that anymore. I’m just going to tell it like it is. Here goes………….
We are nurses because we love people. We are nurses because we have compassion. We are nurses because we want to help others to either maintain their health or return to good health. We are nurses because we believe no one should die uncomfortably or alone. We are nurses because we do not like to see people suffer. We are nurses because we want nothing more than to hold your hand, or the hands of your loved ones, as you make a necessary, but difficult decision. We chose this profession because we want to make sure people die with dignity and without pain, and if we can facilitate having your loved ones hold your hand while you pass, that’s a good day for us. Each of us has hundreds of stories. We don’t forget our patients.
Many of us have had some life experiences in our own families and circle of friends that included the death of someone close to us. We know what it is like to watch someone you love suffer. We know what it’s like to put your parent in hospice, or to care for a mother or father with dementia. Many of us have health issues of our own, and must see physicians on a regular basis. Some have soldiered through surgeries and intense chemotherapy and radiation for breast cancer themselves, or lost mothers to breast cancer. Some have buried their sons or daughters and their hearts are still broken. Some have volunteered to serve our great country and worked as nurses in Iraq during Desert Storm, helping to care for victims of the war. Some of those nurses have come back home without their friends because they were killed in the war. Some have buried their mothers and returned a few days later to work. And almost ALL of us have herniated disks, heel spurs, and sore muscles.
We really do love our patients. Often, we love their families as well. We know them for long periods of time, sometimes months or years. Trust is established. Friendships are formed. We are happy when they do well. We are sad when they die. We call or text on our days off to check on them. We can’t help it. We’re nurses. That’s just what we do.
And for all of these reasons, this is why when we experience the polar opposite, we sometimes, can’t help but cry.
In my short 7 years of being a nurse in the medical ICU, I have wrestled (with the help of my friend Tina), a patient who was a gang member, back to bed. He was trying to leave against medical advice, and was about to pull out a line that could have lead to him bleeding to death before anyone found him. He called me a “fat b—-,” remembered our names, and told us that he was calling his “thug friends” to get Tina and I in the parking lot. That was scary. Tina and I have families, children we would like to make it home to.
I’ve had a man come after me with a masterlock tied into a handkerchief because I did not know the results of his wife’s MRI immediately following having it done. (I’m a nurse, not a radiologist). While caring for alcoholics and drug addicted patients, we have ALL been kicked violently, punched, slapped, and spit on. We get threatened OFTEN. Verbal abuse is just part of our day.
It gets worse.
When we compassionately try to give someone the opportunity to quietly hold the hand of their loved ones while they pass, (because we know they are about to pass), we get threatened with law suits. We get called murderers. When there is NOTHING left that we or any physicians are able to do for a loved one, family members make phone calls, speaking very poorly of us, even calling us names, and then tell them that someone is on there way to give us a “rude awakening.” We are often calling security to protect us. We walk to our cars together, not alone.
We listen to the DEMANDS of family members who INSIST we turn their 500 pound loved one hourly, which takes every nurse on the floor, and we often wonder, who turned them when they were at home?? We stand there while we are accused of causing those multiple stage 4 bed sores, the same ones we had documented when they arrived on the floor from their home.
We listen to family members speak horribly about our colleagues, which just bonds us closer as a unit. Messing with one of our colleagues, is like messing with one of our children. It’s simply NOT okay. Ever.
When making the recommendation that someone be a hospice patient instead of torturing someone with advanced cancer and multi-organ system failure, the same patient who the family wants to be AWAKE so they can communicate with them, and so demand that we NOT give any pain medication, we get accused of just wanting our patients to die. So, we are told to continue torturing them and allowing them to experience extreme pain, just so that their loved ones can see their eyes open.
No. We KNOW they are going to die. We would just PREFER to let you have this time, allow you to hold their hand and BE with them, rather than us jump on their chests, break all of their ribs, and pump them full of chemicals, and then call the family back in to see them when it is much too late to hold their hand. We’re nurses. We’re compassionate. We don’t LIKE to do that.
Our hearts BREAK when we get accused of some of the horrific things we get accused of. None of us are murderers. None of us come to work anxious to watch people die and loved ones suffer. None of us. Likewise, after 12-hour shifts like this, NONE of us are emotionally ready to handle a fight with an ex-husband over what time the kids should be picked up, or answer to a friend why we forgot to call them. We sometimes get a little pre-occupied with “work.” Sometimes, all we can do is shower and crawl into bed. Please try to understand. We are physically and emotionally SPENT……
And please don’t say, “You ONLY work 3 days a week? You’re LUCKY!” (We spend much of our time off in “recovery mode.”)
And also don’t ever say, “You ONLY have 2 patients?” Chances are, we have 75 family members who flat-out refuse to follow the “2 visitors at a time” rule, and are all waiting for you to fix their coffee just right.
We’re compassionate, all of us. We all love people, and we love helping people return to good health. Please, please don’t abuse us and send us home in tears. Please!
And please, please, remember. Sugar-coated gummy bears. They really DO help…..