As nurses, we are incredible actors, and rarely do we allow our true emotions, thoughts and feelings to break through the masks that we wear to shield our patients from the knowledge that their caregivers are often working at a level of near and total depletion. We are dying of exhaustion on the inside, pleasant and alert on the outside. While my back is aching and my feet are screaming, my face is smiling and I am saying encouraging, empathetic and intelligent things. While my mind is racing through the fifty things I need to do in the next hour, I am comforting, advocating, educating and explaining without the tiniest bit of impatience or hurry in my voice. I am wearing a mask, and is as much a part of my uniform as my hospital-branded scrubs or the stethoscope emblazoned with my name
When I am interrupted for the tenth time in as many minutes, I look up with a smile and a convey an attitude of patient helpfulness as I direct a visitor to the elevators, promise to bring a warm blanket “in just a moment,” and update yet more family members on their loved ones care.
As I work through a complex problem with five pairs of eyes anxiously watching my every move, I patiently explain what I am doing, why it’s important and what it means for the patient. When I answer the phone after it has rung twenty seven times, I do so as though I’m greeting a friend on the other end of the line
Surprisingly, the emotional energy it takes to keep our exhaustion (and sometimes irritation) from showing through is enormous. There are days when I can’t decide which part of me is more depleted…my body, my mind or my soul. But I do know this. By the time I arrive home at the end of the day, I have smiled, educated, explained, reasoned, advocated, coordinated, answered, discussed, narrated, cajoled, empathized, sympathized, calmed, encouraged, reported and updated until I cannot form coherent sentences anymore. I have no words left, no energy left, no “me” left. I pull into my driveway feeling like an empty shell…a shell who put on an act for an entire day. An act that said, “I’m here, I’m ready for anything, I can take it, I’ve got what you need, I am what you need, leave it to me, don’t you worry about a thing. I’ve got this.”
As I remove my scrubs, I remove the persona of one who has a never-ending well of helpfulness and patience at my disposal. The show is over, and I am now free to act exactly in accordance with the way I feel. I don’t talk, I don’t give, I don’t think. My husband greets me at the door with a glass of wine and a warm meal. I shower, eat, put my feet up and often fall asleep on the sofa before the clock strikes nine. I have absolutely nothing left to give. In these quiet moments, I often wonder where I will find the energy, the words, and the patience to give those in my care what they need most: an intelligent, collected and competent nurse. A nurse who can stay upbeat when she is worn down, speak slowly when she is in a rush, and stay calm when chaos unfurls around her
As I rest, whether it’s one night or a few blessed days, I do things that help replenish my reserves, recharge my batteries and renew my spirit. I sleep well, exercise, enjoy nature and connect with those I love. And hopefully, by the time I go back to work, I’ll be ready to don my mask and do it all again. With a smile.