People often say to nurses or doctors,
“How was your day?”
“Tell me how it is to be a nurse, how is it to be a doctor?”
Questions that perhaps give us the most pause.
Except, if you ask us, the work on the frontline feels anything but explainable, anything but extraordinary.
We wake up in the morning, we dread going to work, we hit the snooze button like any other, wishing the day wasn’t Monday, wishing the 12.5 hours stretched before us wasn’t today, wishing we could snuggle under the covers, away from the world. We surface, kick the covers off obstinately, brew our coffee/tea, curse the obnoxious commuters. We resemble any responsible adult when we go through the motions of everyday life.
Except; the responsibility hasn’t even begun.
We punch in, walk onto the unit, surveying the waiting room as we walk in - a determinant of how the shift may be; large groups grieving, families arguing, solemn looks, crash cart lined up outside the room, empty nursing station warning trouble in one or more of the rooms, and we want to turn around and walk back off the unit.
Except, we don’t.
We take our assignment for the day, the patient who is crashing in room 12, and another supposed low maintenance patient, awaiting step down unit. We peek at the low maintenance patient on the way to the crasher, heart already feeling the guilt that we are about to neglect this patient today while we deal with the storm next door.
Except, we don’t have time for guilt - yet.
We spend the day in what could only be described as chasing our own tail; watching patients mercilessly who state “I won’t fall,” accepting blame when they do during the four seconds we turned the other way, we scurry back and forth titrating drips, sending copious labs, adjusting ventilator settings, participating in rounds, admitting, discharging, and transferring patients…and ready to begin it all over again before the room is even properly dry from being bleached clean….we spend an inordinate amount of time cleaning up after doctors, and other providers, a trail of empty gauze, sodden dressings, syringes, tape, packaging and other assorted items so they do not become trapped under patients, or invade what little personal space they have, we dedicate moments, and sometimes backbreaking hours with patients, turning and positioning, and tucking them in snug and warmly - not just because a damn hospital policy tells us to, but because it’s the one little thing we can do to give them a little dignity, a clean environment while this room and this bed is their home. We escort families in, and tactfully shoo them out with the frequency of cleaning the escaping diarrhea around the flexi-seal tube, somewhere in the middle of this reflecting on the harsh realities and visuals of nursing that television shows will never depict.
We grapple with decisions, weighing the risks and benefits of what we’re about to do and often it occurs without anyone else in the room, the enormity of the responsibility so overwhelming, yet we cannot think and stew on it until the day is done.
Except, try as we might, we’re not sure we could articulate it well to the masses, either.
We forgo meal breaks when a patient is decompensating; not because we desire the glory of trudging on, but because for this day, this patient is our world, our responsibility, and one hour away from them in an understaffed unit - with a fellow nurse watching them alongside of his/her own catastrophic situation - well, it isn’t a meal break we will enjoy peacefully, so we tell ourselves we’ll just catch up a bit more, then go. Just another 10 minutes, then 10 minutes becomes just another hour… until it becomes just two more hours to change of shift, just one more hour, just thirty minutes.
Except, on most days, we aren’t even aware of how much time has escaped and we’re catching up on all the vital signs, the hourly intake, the interruptions and time seems to stand still in the moment when the patient arrests and the room is flooded with doctors and nurses trying to save this life.
Time stands still, even though an hour has passed and the patient is successfully resuscitated, and we go about the ordinary tasks of maintaining human function that the media will never portray, we go about cleansing the grime and gore that won’t stop gushing from all orifices - a sight we endure that’s by no means extraordinary, but an ordinary function of what we do, we spend time that feels like hours scurrying after orders while patients circle the drain, when our voices have grown hoarse over days and weeks from pleading with the doctors to grow some balls and tell the families honestly their loved one isn’t coming back, and it’s time…time to stop slaughtering them with invasive treatment, time to do what’s humane, not what’s good for ego, time to to stop and let them go….even though our hearts are shattered to admit defeat too. Most days we tell ourselves ordinary has to feel “enough” as we stare at the ceiling while sleep won’t come.
We spend sacred minutes, which is more than likely scattered moments with patients who are suffering, end of life, experiencing the agony of distressing news. We are at the bedside during painful procedures, we are at the bedside when no one else is there, no families, no friends, no one to speak of, We are the comfort of the brave, the solace of the strong, the restful place of the tired, and dying. And somedays we cannot leave it all there, so the caregiver role strain, the responsibility, the extent of what we see and feel in one day cannot be captured in any articulate sentence,
When someone asks us how our day was, we’ll just say, “fine”
When someone asks us what it means to be a nurse, we are likely to simply say “responsibility.”
..We punch out, the day is over.
The outside world looks for what’s extraordinary.
To us, we find meaning in the ordinary.