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Friends with Benefits

If you work in healthcare, you hear it every day: “I would leave my job, but it’s my coworkers that keep me here.” I struggled with this conundrum for years as a nurse in a complex, high-acuity cardiothoracic surgical intensive care unit. The hospital became packed to the brim. Administrators tightened their belts anyway. Patient acuity skyrocketed. Administrators shrugged at staffing anyway. The notion of “heads in beds” meant that a new admission would roll onto the unit, whether there was a nurse adequately prepared to care for them or not.

I don’t necessarily mean prepared in their training. Instead, I mean this: did the nurse have a bite to eat? Did the nurse take a moment to use the bathroom? Did the nurse take five minutes to breathe or cry or take a walk after another patient life was gone – often too soon? Healthcare was hard enough when I worked at the bedside: in a post-pandemic healthcare landscape and severe shortages in staffing across the country, the wasteland is more barren than ever before.

When you don’t have the resources and you lack the means, the only way to survive is through your colleagues. You live and die by who works alongside you, and this is profoundly different within the walls of a hospital compared to the corporate world. Trust me, I worked in the corporate sector before becoming a nurse: there has never been and will never be a life-or-death marketing emergency.

While so much of the hospital dynamic is toxic – bullying; hazing; gossip; slander – there exists one saving grace that keeps so many healthcare workers hanging on by a thread. They are woven to their work friends, often tattered and torn, but never quite broken thanks to the men and women who permit them to collaborate and commiserate and laugh until their stomachs hurt. I had the pleasure of seeing some of my old coworkers this weekend, and it’s hard not to reminisce about the good times. Trust me, there was enough drama during my ICU days to make Grey’s Anatomy seem tame…but there’s something about the bond between colleagues who become lifelong friends that words cannot describe.

When you are down in the trenches, so to speak, you have no choice but to rely on one another. Sometimes, teamwork means helping to clean and reposition a fragile patient. Other times, it means conducting CPR during a life-threatening cardiac arrest. Other times still, it’s making a coffee run and having everyone’s order memorized by the end. I left my role as a bedside nurse nearly five years ago, yet some of the people that I worked with will remain a part of my life forever. Others have lost touch, but it merely takes one text message or phone call or chance encounter to showcase the mutual love and admiration once again.

Is it trauma bonding? Probably: you are eternally connected to the very people who have stood alongside you during life’s most cruel and unjust moments. But it’s more than a codependent need to feel seen and understood. Most of my closest friends from those days have moved onto new roles. Some are advanced practice providers. Others have shifted to other departments or facilities. Others still have walked away from healthcare entirely (and who can blame them) – welcoming the serenity that comes when you leave the adrenaline junkie lifestyle behind. And yet somehow, when the stars align and we capitalize on an opportunity for good food, great conversation, and a little too much wine…I can’t help but consider the impact these humans made on the person I am today.

One of my dear friends and mentors came to dinner, and it was a special moment to reunite with someone who served as such a guiding light during a time that I felt so unsure of myself. I experience imposter syndrome every day now as a nurse anesthetist, but my years of experience in the ICU taught me how to remain cool during even the most stressful moments. She is truly one of the linchpins of my foundation as a provider, and her tough love and tremendous insight always came due to one simple fact: “You were always a challenge to keep up with or try to stay ahead of!"

I received messages from everyone the next morning, thanking me for getting a few old friends together in mini-reunion that was long overdue. After my mentor and I exchanged pleasant remarks, she reminded me one the single most important tenets of a career in healthcare and beyond: “Sometimes all it takes is someone to believe in you.”

Your work friends? They believe in you. They support you. They challenge you. They inspire you. They elevate you. They have your back. They save your ass. And if you’re lucky, they show up with snacks. (Sometimes, in the form of emergency Snickers bars in your locker.) Everything I lost during my time as an intensive care unit nurse – human life; faith in humanity; the notion of God – I gained back through my inner circle. I would never return to a place where burnout and guilt plague your everyday…and yet my work friends were the reason I stayed long overdue. It turns out, no matter where you end up in life and no matter what you do…some people were made to be a constant in your life. And while life sometimes gets in the way and makes it challenging to always remain on the same page, a select few will always find their way into the next chapter.

Happy times. Unspeakable tragedies. Marriages. Divorces. Babies. Career changes. A global pandemic. It’s the moments we find between the dramatics of work and the chaos of life that permit us to be fully present; eternally connected; and thoughtfully reminded of what matters in the end. A dear friend once told me, “Love that is meant to be will always find a way.” I guess the same thing goes for us ICU nurses. A long and storied love affair...with a little more bodily fluid.

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