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December 1st, 2020

The right place at the right time

Last year around this time, I was truly excited to be returning to the bedside. I had left my previous med-surg job during the summer, convinced I was all burned out of direct patient care, when really I was in need of new challenges and more robust stress reduction strategies. After spending some time working in research, taking classes toward my MSN, and learning to value and invest in my own health and well-being, I accepted another job as a med-surg nurse, nervous but happy to return to the bedside. I started my new job in December 2019. I had no idea how important those months of reflection and preparation would be just a couple of months later.

As COVID 19 has permeated every piece of my professional life and many parts of my personal life, I am more grateful than ever for two things: 1) that I work in a hospital caring directly for patients during this time, and 2) that I took the time to learn what fulfills me as a nurse and as a human being. I know how very valuable the work of myself, my colleagues, and all essential workers is to fighting this pandemic, and I can't imagine doing anything else right now. However, the nurse I was less than two years ago would not have been able to handle this. She would have gone to work every day; absorbed every bit of the fear, anger, and distrust that COVID has created around us all; held onto it so that her patients and their families might find a little bit of respite; and not known where to put it after twelve hours (or thirteen, or sometimes fourteen...). I know this, because I feel that nurse rising up in me often, insisting that we can't take much more of this.

To some degree, she's right: this is unsustainable forever. There is always work to do as a nurse, even without a new infectious illness running rampant through our world. Thankfully, it is work I've learned that I can set down at the end of each shift, at least temporarily, while I go back to my life. It's a good one, filled with people who lift me up, a home that shelters and restores me, and pastimes - running, writing, and gardening, to name some favorites - that allow me to release my nerves and frustrations and escape reality for a little while. Even as the events of 2020 have chipped away at the periphery of what fills my life, I see with relief that everything I know to be most important to me is still here, or is waiting for me on the other side of this challenge.

The biggest surprise gift I have found in the midst of all of this, though, is confidence that I can continue doing the nursing work I have always loved, without completely losing myself to it, as I was in danger of doing before. We've all heard someone say that nursing is the hardest work you'll ever love, and it's true. Any job that asks you to give of yourself to help others without promises of success or gratitude can be difficult, but it also offers fulfillment in ways both big and small. As I count even the littlest victories of the past year since I returned to the bedside, I find that they are bountiful. I returned to bedside nursing at exactly the right time, and I will forever be grateful that I did.

Tags: Purpose/Meaning

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Comments (2)

Comments (2)

Hi Cara:

Thanks for sharing your powerful story.

I'm curious whether you have any advice for nurses who can't take time off to reflect and recenter. What would you tell them about how to find the same level of purpose and balance you have? It is so easy to "lose yourself" to this kind of work.

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Hi Cindy - I would say that reflecting and recentering doesn't have to require a ton of time away from the bedside. Journaling, spending time in solitude and peace during a day off, or even stepping off the unit for a 20 minute lunch break often helps me regain enough composure and perspective to finish my shift on a strong note. Time off work is going to be hard to come by for everyone right now, so it's extra important that we release ourselves from responsibility for just a few minutes every day. It's not a perfect situation, not even close, but it can be enough for now.

I also think it's important to be mindful of how much we're taking on. As nurses, we tend to feel compelled to take on overtime wherever we're asked, stay late, come in early, and generally devote a lot of extra time and energy that we don't necessarily have. And that doesn't even account for our obligations outside of work! I know that when I start to feel resentful and angry, it's a sign that I'm giving too much - which means I'm not giving my best anymore. We have to make peace with what we can give, without always feeling compelled to do more than that.