The Messy Untangling: On Sorting Through the Hard Feelings after a Rough Shift

Today, I’m feeling it. The untangling after a particularly intense shift on all levels. I walked into a shift with a family whose child had taken a big turn for the worse and they had no guarantees that moving forward with certain procedures and therapies would turn things around for the better. We could only offer the best medical explanations and statistics to help them make their choices, and then my hands as a nurse moved forward with my role in these procedures and therapies, asking God for the grace to do my work well. Keep track of every detail I am responsible for. Ask for the help I cannot be too proud to ask for. Stay on my feet in a highly charged environment when I’ve already been on my feet for nine hours and still have a few to go. Feel the stress and fear but maintain a calm demeanor despite all my own anxieties. A thousand tasks, lab values, new orders, vital signs, potential subtle changes in my patient condition, and a family’s delicate emotional state to keep track of and tend to. I slept nine hours last night and yet I still feel like an exhausted train wreck. A big part of me just wants to nap and not think, but this patient and family stay on my mind. I refuse to shut myself out from what goes on in my heart when I can feel the rumblings on a deeper, semi-conscious level how sad my work can make me. It’s important to pay attention and to let some of that processing happen.

The determination to be the nurse I want to be for the long haul involves a commitment to let the hard things get to me without making my own heart hard. I cannot care for a family in true empathy without letting myself feel a bit of what they feel, question what they are questioning, fear what they are fearing, hope what they are hoping. They are the hard feelings, the hard questions, the hard fears, and the hardest hopes to define. It is incredibly challenging to let myself enter into that place, let myself process through it, and then learn to let myself out of that place to try to function as a normal human being with my own normal healthy children at home. Because the very odd position as a PICU nurse is that I know things are profoundly in God’s hands, and yet I feel profoundly responsible for my work and role, and I have reverence for the fact that an error, delay or pure neglect on my end could mean life or death in some situations. It’s the strangest position of not being in control and yet feeling so responsible to be in control.

I work in a world where life can be hard to the point where death is sometimes the better choice. The untangling is messy. Clarity can be elusive. Hope is real. God is good. As a nurse, I’m learning to work and live in all of this.

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