Rushing down the hospital hallway on Sunday, to get a shivering patient a blanket from the warmer, I suddenly had a sense of gratitude for my job and the ability to perform it so strong and so powerful, that tears sprang to my eyes and I had to blink them away lest someone think something was wrong. It was so unexpected and so intense that by the time I walked back into the patient’s room and put the heated blanket over her shoulders, I think she could feel it, because she said, “this feels so good, I could cry.”
A day (or night) in the life of a nurse is piled high with tasks. Patients must be assessed, medications must be passed, doctor’s orders addressed, treatments performed. Patients must be admitted, educated, discharged, and ambulated. Conversations with physicians, other nurses, nurse’s aides, pharmacists, physical and respiratory therapists, social workers, and family members take up a large part of the day. Everything must be documented (“if you didn’t chart it, you didn’t do it!”), often at the end of a 13 hour day because there was no time to stop caring for patients long enough to prove that it was done. Intake, output, weights, and vital signs need to be obtained, monitored, and addressed on each patient. A nurse must know the proper and safe amount of medication for every affliction, and question when an order seems unsafe, but must never diagnose, only make suggestions. The nurse must stay up to date on the newest technology and operate complicated life saving equipment with ease (never appearing befuddled in front of a patient). They must remember policies and procedures and signs and symptoms of hundreds of illnesses, or at least know where to find the information and absorb it quickly, and well enough to explain it in layman’s terms so that anyone from a child’s level intelligence to a genius can understand. In addition, the nurse must weigh intuition against objective data. At times, this means imploring the doctor to intervene and possibly order expensive and unnecessary tests, based on a “gut feeling” or say nothing, and realize too late that although the patient’s numbers were good, the instinct that “something isn’t right” should never be ignored.
Meanwhile, the nurse must nod, when well-meaning managers appear with the latest and greatest piece of safety equipment, or a process change and must implement these things with a smile. A nurse must wait to go to the bathroom while assisting patients who need help to go, must eat when it can be squeezed in around the patient’s meals and must only sit in between tasks. A nurse must always appear calm and in control, even when faced with gruesome injuries, children gasping for air, families grieving, or when aggressive patients attack, verbally and sometimes physically. A nurse should not tell a patient, “I’m busy” no matter what the request, and should try not to appear harried or overwhelmed, even when the tasks are piling up, and that barely treading water feeling has dissolved to the drowning feeling that every nurse knows so well.
Why in the world would anyone do this, you may wonder. Why would someone want to work weekends, nights, and holidays and have so much responsibility and yet very little say? Why would anyone want to put the needs and wants of others above their own? The answer is easy for a nurse and it can hit us when we least expect it. It is a blessing to make someone comfortable, to ease their pain and their anxiety. We are the liaison between birth and life, dying and death. With this heavy mantle of responsibility, comes the pleasure of knowing that we have made a difference in someone’s life, every day. We see people at their best and their worst. We see tragedy and triumph. What the patient sees and feels in us, is the joy and passion that comes through in every thing we do, from saving lives to fetching a warm blanket. It is a blessing to make someone comfortable, to sit with them when they cry, to make them laugh and ease their pain. I may not remember this every shift, but when I do, I am flooded with gratefulness that this is the job I have been given to do and that I have the ability to do it.