I get the same reaction over and over again when I tell people that I am a nurse.
A: “So what do you do?”
Me: “I’m a nurse.”
A: “Oh so, you must work like what…3 days a week? That’s awesome! I wish I could just work 3 days a week. All that free time must be great.”
And that’s when, if you’re a nurse, you will roll your eyes. Sure, it’s great to work only 3 12-hour shifts out of a 5 day work week and do your banking in the middle of the day on a Wednesday while everyone else is grunting through the 9-5. But that’s hardly the reality.
If I am working day-shift, things usually go like this:
4:45am – wake up
5:30am – leave for work
6:00am – arrive at work/eat breakfast
6:30am – figure out my patient assignment for the day and look over their charts
7:00am – get report from the night-shift nurses
7:30am – get my day started (assess patients, give meds, send patients to tests, etc)
9:00am – 11:00am – attend rounds while simultaneously providing patient care
3:00pm – finally eat lunch
5:00pm – administer evening meds, speak with family members, admit patients
7:00pm – give report to night-shift nurses
8:00-8:30pm – leave hospital
9:00pm – arrive home, eat dinner, go to bed
Try doing that for three days straight. Somewhere in there I try to remember to go to the bathroom or drink some water. Most of the above time is spent standing up. My family members will tell you that it’s like I don’t even exist because I eat, work, and sleep. Night-shift means that they don’t even see me at all because I leave for the hospital while they are at work and come home when they are still sleeping. I’m pretty sure I have gone almost a full 5 days without speaking to my mother because of my work schedule. And all that free time everyone thinks they would have? It’s spent recuperating from physical, mental, and emotional exhaustion. And since most of us work 80 hours in a pay period (two weeks), you have to work one 8-hour shift as well. Then factor in working every-other-weekend, two Fridays per month, and various holidays. In reality, only other nurses really know that working such a schedule isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be.
I have learned a tremendous amount since nursing school.
Mainly, that nursing school is nothing like actual nursing.
The rest being that nursing is an extrememly difficult profession. You must manage 3-5 people as if they were ships on extremely rough seas: get them safely to the harbor without incurring too much damage along the way. You must be smart but it isn’t enough to just be intelligent; you must have a keen intuition and gut instincts that will help you to make clinical decisions. Each shift you will be juggling a great many things required by your patients and the physicians, and you must be finely attuned to every one of those things but not so distracted by any of them that you cannot focus. You have to be able to adapt to a wide variety of situations, personalities, and problems because nothing is the same every day. One day your patient think that you are the best nurse they have had and the next, a patient is throwing things at you across the room. And, because of this, you can never simply be good at your job like everyone else, you must be excellent so that you do not make life-altering mistakes. No one’s life is in jeopardy if you don’t get that company-wide email out or your computer eats those sales projections, but someone will die if you give the wrong medication or fail to notice important changes in your patient’s status.
Nursing is so difficult that it humbles me every single day that I spend on my unit. Just as it is difficult for the civilian to comprehend the experiences of a soldier, so is it difficult to describe the complexity of one’s experiences as a nurse. I am not merely carrying out a series of tasks ordered by a physician, I am the man on the ground for that physician, sending back important data to be analyzed. I am the one who will see the change in vital signs or the blue pallor of someone’s skin before any physician does. Patients are relying on me to protect and reassure, to nuture, to be their mouthpiece, to navigate them through what may be the worst time of their lives. It is an incredible burden to shoulder and one that few people ever will, comfortable as they are at that computer in their cubicle.
And so, even if it is only 3 days a week, it always seems like a lifetime because everything that happens in a shift tends to slip through the elevator doors with you on your way home, always present until you return again.