Working in my 24th year as a bedside nurse at a large teaching hospital in the surgical intensive care unit, I often ask myself why I have stayed.
Our patients are physically challenging, the nurse-to-patient ratios of care haven’t improved, the demands of care haven’t decreased and ancillary help hasn’t been more plentiful. Why would someone with a bachelor’s degree, a professionally maintained license and an additional critical care nursing certification stay in such an environment? The last 18 months of living and working in a pandemic has not made these questions any easier to answer. If anything, I’m questioning my role as a bedside nurse even more. So, just as I have periodically questioned my future and have been asked multiple times why I have stayed “just a bedside nurse,” following is why I have kept pursuing what I love every day.
Pursuit of Nursing and Happiness
I (still) really enjoy helping people. Yes, I know it sounds cheesy, but honestly, isn’t this why all of us got into nursing? I think nursing is a calling. Whether you are a caregiver in your family or the friend that everyone goes to when they need help, you enjoy helping people through something mentally and/or physically challenging. We get a lot of satisfaction when we can problem solve and make someone feel better. I think this is a core reason we survived the challenge of nursing school. And even through a pandemic, I still feel that this concept rings true. It can be difficult to remember it, especially when we are spread so thin and asked to do more with less, but it is still true. When I can do something special for a patient, such as give them a back rub or listen to a distraught family member and they are truly appreciative, I know I made a difference in someone’s life, and I still get fulfillment from that.
Being a nurse has allowed me to be a professional and also a mom. I have often felt that I cheated the system, even though I worked full time and every third weekend, because I could juggle my schedule to be present for my family and kids all through their lives. Not many people can say this, if they are caught up in the hustle and bustle of a career-driven society. When my kids were young, I worked nights to avoid a lot of child care, even though it meant lack of sleep for me. As they got older, I switched to day shift and scheduled work so I could attend field trips and holiday parties. Did I have to miss some things? Absolutely, but my sons knew I was there for the important things, and I am truly grateful for that. We make sacrifices, but nursing lessens those sacrifices as I reflect on my kids’ early childhood experiences. To me, that is worth each time I question why I stay in such a physically and mentally challenging career.
Always Challenging, Always Learning
Another driving factor is that I love learning about how our bodies work. My colleagues will tell you: I am a self-proclaimed hemodynamic nerd! Pathophysiology, learning disease processes and new treatments really excite me. When I can apply this knowledge to improve a life, or help a patient and their family understand injuries or disease, I find satisfaction. I feel that working in a teaching institution, I am always learning. Anyone who has been in healthcare will tell you that it is ever-changing and to be successful, you must embrace that change and keep learning. Even when they change the NG we are using for the third time or get a new IV pump, we need to keep learning. I precept new nurses in my unit frequently, and that keeps it fresh for me. I have to explain how we do something (that I’ve done a thousand times) and why. Do I like to just take care of my patients and do my job? Yes, but I still get a kick out of watching a nurse do something for the first time. I am proud when someone I’ve trained becomes a fantastic nurse to work with at the bedside.
We are Truly the Eyes, Ears and Nose of the Medical Team
The role of the bedside nurse in a healthcare team cannot be underestimated. In my unit, we have interdisciplinary rounds that include the RN, MDs, APRNs, respiratory therapists, nutrition, pharmacists, physical therapists and occupational therapists. I know that my role as the nurse is to advocate and coordinate the care at the bedside from each of these dynamic teams. I love to work with other disciplines to get someone who is critically ill back on their feet. When a patient comes back to visit us after a horrific accident or burn, it solidifies why I love my job. I know that a big part of their recovery is a direct result of the nurse’s care, which is tirelessly given day after day, shift after shift. These are the times when all the hard work pays off. Even when we don’t get the best outcome, but I am able to help a family through difficult decisions to withdraw care, I feel successful in my role. By my caring actions, I can help make a difficult time in their lives bearable – and hopefully healing for them in the future.
More Than ‘Just a Nurse’
People often ask me, “Why don’t you go back to school?” Or “You’re too smart to be just a nurse.” I don’t know why but I always take offense to those questions. I haven’t ruled out going back to school, but it hasn’t sparked my interest as much as my pride at being a bedside nurse at this time. I have worked alongside many nurses who went back to school to become nurse practitioners, certified nurse anesthetists, clinic nurse specialists or even to transition to leadership roles. I fully support anyone who wants to change their practice, but as we have seen through the pandemic, the bedside nurse is a necessary driving force for healthcare. All the NPs, CRNAs and CNSs in the world cannot keep the healthcare system running and beds open. The role of the bedside nurse needs to be celebrated and honored, because we are in the trenches making things happen every day. I know a lot of younger nurses who are taking traveling assignments to get paid more, and honestly, I don’t blame them. Maybe when nurses actually get paid what they deserve, the honor of being “just a nurse” will be enough to keep people at the bedside. For me, I am going to keep choosing to focus on the profession I love until that happens.
We’d love to know: What keeps you at the bedside?