It’s been an extremely complicated time to be a bedside nurse. Disillusionment about the profession and reasons for it are real and in many cases, very legitimate. Like everyone, I continue to process through all that’s going on with the system, the politics, the pay, the staffing issues, all of it. But for today, I am thinking upon what drew me here, and for now, what still keeps me here.
Before I became a registered nurse, I did research in long-term care (LTC) facilities looking to improve the quality of life and quality of care for the LTC residents. We were ultimately looking to improve staffing levels. Part of this research included conducting interviews such as the Geriatric Depression Scale (GDS) interview to assess the prevalence of depression in these residents. We were trained to conduct the interviews as impassively as we could, so as to not sway the responses in any way. We got a list of those residents – names and room numbers – who consented to participate in our research, and otherwise knew little to nothing about these residents, their personhood or life stories.
One day I went to a facility to conduct interviews, and as one might imagine, the majority of residents were the frail elderly, in their 70s to 90s. I looked at my list for my next resident to interview, found her room, knocked on her door and called out an introduction of myself. I heard no response so I quietly entered the room.
I saw a curtain slightly drawn around a bed in the room, and saw some legs underneath a blanket so I approached the bed and slowly pulled back the curtain. Before me lay a young black woman with a beautiful face and flawless skin. There was no TV on, no music playing, nothing for her to engage with as she lay alone in bed. It became quickly apparent to me that she was quadriplegic. Her body betrayed all her requests for it to move, but her mind was sharp, and she could whisper in conversation. I introduced myself to her and asked if we could proceed with the interview. She nodded and quietly whispered, “Yes.”
I went through my questions, all of them quite terrible to me, frankly.
“Do you feel worthless the way you are now?” I asked as impassively as possible.
Her eyes filled with tears. Again, she nodded, looked downward, and quietly whispered, “Yes.”
As a researcher, I was not allowed to respond with any sign of empathy. I wasn’t allowed to ask her more about her story, her experiences, her community or her feelings.
I proceeded with the interview, thanked her for her time, quietly left the room, and despised myself, despised research, and despised the system.
I had no doubt that people came, when they could on tight staffing, to help change this beautiful woman’s diaper and feed her at mealtime. I didn’t know enough about her and her history to know if she chose, in some depressive state, to be alone in that room after perhaps declining offers to be brought out to the main communal room or offers for the TV to be turned on. But it was clear to me that she seemed quite alone, and I in my time with her as a researcher was not allowed to extend any empathy or connection to her.
Please understand, I appreciated the research for the long-term goals it was aiming for: to argue for better staffing and better quality of care in LTCs so that the residents might have better quality of life. But my role in the built-in limitations of research eventually left my heart empty and restless. It was experiences like this that drove me to go back to school to become a nurse. I wanted more connection; I wanted a license, if you will, to be at the side of the sick and suffering.
It’s a very hard time to be a nurse, to stay at the side of the sick and suffering. We may do work that is sacrificial in many ways; we sacrifice our ignorance as a ticket to bliss when we work in healthcare and we do this because we care about our patients, but we are also tired of being martyrs to the system. Nurses everywhere are saying, “Enough is enough, I’m walking away from it,” and I don’t blame or judge those who leave the bedside. But administrators and policymakers, I ask you – do you consider that this is not just about the sanity, emotional, mental, and financial health of nurses? This is still about the patients who lose out at the end of the day if nurses are not respected, heard and taken care of. There’s a woman in a LTC facility who needs nurses at all levels to stay around for her, for her quality of care and her quality of life. Yes, she’s alive, she was fed and changed each day. But is she alive? She feels worthless the way she is now, and there are likely not enough nurses and nurse aides to stand next to her and give her the attention, the dignity, she needs and deserves.
Patients like this woman are what drew me here to this profession. Patients like her are still what keep me here, but administrators and policymakers, you are the ones with the power to keep so many more nurses here at the bedside with me. Once again I ask you, hear our plea for real respect, real support and real help.