If I could capture the lessons I learned during my time as a critical care nurse in a bottle and visit them whenever I needed a delicate spritz of self-reflection, I would. The problem, you see, is that I don’t remember all the sincere and formative moments I witnessed as an intensive care unit nurse. I can’t recall every hand I’ve held; every head I’ve caressed; every joke my patients have cracked…because the staunch prison guards of repressed trauma and passing time keep them under lock and key.
My time as a nurse to some of the sickest patients not only in the hospital, but in the state or even country, is a slurry of pride and joy; torment and pain. My role in safeguarding the lives of those who kept fighting, while simultaneously ushering those who neared their end, was one of the greatest mind-warps of my entire life. I never wanted to be seen as a hero; I never showed up to work hoping I could showcase some form of bravado for all the world to see. And yet as a team, we opened human chests at the bedside. We pumped bodies full of blood and medications along with our own sweat and tears. We managed more and more with less and less, quickly shrinking real estate thanks to the addition of devices to take over basic physiological functions. We calculated. We titrated. We mixed drips and lotions and potions like modern-day medical witches and warlocks. We watched patients face the most devasting bodily hits and find the resilience to recover. We watched patients without a single known problem meet a dramatic and devastating end.
I have washed and bagged more dead bodies than I can count. I understand this might make you feel uncomfortable. I understand you may not want to hear this part. I understand that death scares you and you would prefer to remain blissfully ignorant than focus on this moment; than experience the dissonance; than channel the pain. But I have witnessed the passing of more human beings than I can ever quantify. I have held the shaking bodies of screaming families, overcome by the unconscionable grief of a gut-wrenching end. I have held the hands of those left to pass without family, friends, or another soul to their name. I have sat in the corner of an ICU floor, exhausted after working for what felt like an eternity to bring back another that hung in the balance. I have held back my own tears upon begging, pleading, questioning whether something truly larger than ourselves exists in the end…after watching the very worst of life happen to the very best people. I have dissociated from the compassionate, bleeding empath that I am to push drugs and break ribs before inhaling a Snickers Bar and taking thirty seconds to pee.
We weren’t heroes: but they told us we were. They told us we were given the challenging patients because we could handle it. They told us we could manage that assignment because we were cut out for the task at hand. They praised us in vain, romantically declaring we were warriors in the trenches when we never asked for a battlefield. The patients became sicker. The cases became more complex. The expectations increased as the resources were chipped away, and we were glamorized only to keep us from walking away.
And yet I was left without a choice. I was left without an option. I wanted desperately to provide the most competent, compassionate care to the patients who needed it. They deserved it. They were literally fighting for their lives: awaiting transplants; recovering from emergency surgeries; suffering from multi-system organ failure. They deserved the nurses that give a damn. They deserved the nurses that were vigilant and capable. They deserved the nurses that valued the human element of healthcare. Yet somehow, I walked away. I left my role as an ICU nurse, and I was ashamed. I felt like a failure. I felt like a sell-out. I felt guilty for putting my own needs above those around me.
Because what they do, in an era of modern medicine – in a time where bodies in beds matter more than safe staffing ratios or competent training regimens – is prey upon the very qualities that make so many nurses excellent at their roles. They encourage nurses to tightly weave their role within their personal identity, making it nearly impossible to rid oneself of the remnants without being shorn to threads. Modern day healthcare will call you a hero to the public and treat you like a villain to your face. Modern day healthcare will gaslight you into believing that the perpetual micro-traumas you face are caused by your own faulty coping mechanisms and not a system that’s too hell-bent on the bottom line to prioritize your wellness. Modern day healthcare will tell you they can replace you; will threaten you to leave; and won’t ever fill your position once you finally do. Modern day healthcare doesn’t give a damn about your post-traumatic stress because they approved bonus pay for overtime and you can buy a new Apple Watch in lieu of well-being. Modern day healthcare is purely concerned with optics, strategy, and the bottom line. Modern day healthcare is predatory...and nurses are the prey.
So when I walked away from a job that I loved more than anything – from a role that made me feel like I was a valuable contributor to an incredible team – it was because I could no longer bag another body without needing a moment to breathe. I could no longer handle the sickest of the sick without recognizing that a failed healthcare system is a terminal disease. I couldn’t argue any longer. I couldn’t fight. I couldn’t advocate for others…because I felt like a criminal when advocating for myself.
I let the part of myself that loved bedside nursing die, and I chose not to resuscitate her. I chose to let her pass gently and find herself in another light. I buried her. I grieved her. I cried at the thought of her. I chose to take a leap of faith for a new chance at the woman I am on the other side of bedside…because being a nurse took pieces of myself that I won’t ever regain. I am thankful for the lessons; for the perspective; for the constant reminder that life is fleeting and deserves to be lived. I am thankful for the friendships; for the collegiality; for the patients who inspired my life. I am thankful for the laughter – yes, needed laughter, serving as cracks of light amid the darkest times. And I’m thankful for the pain…because it taught me that you can love something deeply, but still learn to walk away.
When nurses tell you they need you, listen. When nurses show you they are desperate for help, don’t look the other way. When nurses beg for even a shred of what others consider basic human necessities – a fair wage, time to eat, a moment to pee – support them. Because what the public actually knows about what we endure (and not only nurses, but everyone in healthcare): it’s only a fraction of our reality. We are silenced. We are questioned. We are punished. We are traumatized. And we are expected to show up and do it all over again. What we cannot share, or will not share, is often for the sake of preserving peace. Both at the workplace…and in the deepest corners of our minds.
Most importantly…when nurses tell you they need your support for the sake of their patients – someone that can and will be you one day – please understand, they are in the midst of a losing battle. Your life – and their livelihood – depends on it.
** Dr. Sonja Mitrevska is a Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetist (CRNA) and best-selling author with over twelve years of healthcare experience. She is a public speaker, consultant, and social media influencer. Her passions include travel, work-life balance, and mental health advocacy.**