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Nursing a marriage: Sex and the ICU

From the Winter 2011 issue of Scrubs

Working in the ICU has been good for my love life.

Sex and nursing?  Yes, it’s true.

Years ago, as a newbie nurse, I had a patient, a woman exactly my age—24—who was critically ill after a freak scuba-diving accident. Her fiancé stayed by her side around the clock until she arrested and died. Recently married, I was shocked by this tragedy that felt way too close for comfort. Her death shook me to my core and filled me with doubt about whether I had the emotional fortitude to be a nurse. I stumbled out of the hospital, dazed and distraught, trying to process it all. My husband, Ivan, met me in the parking lot.

“How was work?” he asked as I got into the car.

I was unable to speak.

“Are you hungry?  Tired?”

Yes, I nodded. But not for food or sleep.

When we got home, I was seized with desire. That night our lovemaking was wild and intense as I fled to safety in a place beyond words.

I stayed in the ICU and learned to meet the challenges, conquer my fears, even thrive as a nurse in a place where, minute by minute, patients’ lives hang in the balance. But I have to admit, at the end of each shift, I have always thrilled to a secret relief: to be able to leave it all behind and retreat to my happy home and the steadfast comfort of Ivan’s embrace.

I’m still in the ICU 25 years later, still working every other weekend and night shifts, too, and still loving this work. What has changed is that I now realizea serendipitous benefit of critical care nursing. Spending as much time as I do with patients who are fighting mighty battles and hovering between life and death is a constant and harsh reminder of all we stand to lose. It’s also an inspiration to appreciate what we have in this moment, now. For me, it turns lovemaking with my partner into a necessary and life-affirming practice. Sexual intimacy is the best way to physically unwind, spiritually regenerate and reconnect with my husband after a draining and action-packed shift on Planet ICU.

I wish I could report that our love life has stayed as hot and heavy as it was in those early days. As happens to so many couples, the stresses of everyday life—bills, babies, occasional bickering—cooled the flames, to be sure, but the main culprit was shift work.For years, I was chronically jet-lagged and out of sync with family and friends, often working an opposite schedule to Ivan’s as an insurance broker so one of us could be home with the kids. After each shift, I came home hungry and tired, and too often used chocolate and wine for “nourishment,” and mindless TV on the couch for “rest.” Intimacy was pushed to the back burner—hey, it wasn’t cooking at all for a few years there. (I bet you thought I was going to say “weeks.”)

Our marriage suffered for it—big time. For a while, we became roommates, passing in the day or night, sharing responsibilities, but not a lot else. It’s only been in the last few years that our sexual relationship has begun to flourish again. The kids are growing up and don’t need us as much, so we have more time and head space to focus on “us.”There’s something else, too. I recently underwent major surgery. Having been close to death, I am even more awed by the magnificence of life and more understanding of the courage required to cope with illness. Returning to work in the ICU has given my life added urgency and deeper meaning—it challenges me to choose life and love, again and again.

My marriage continues to be a source of great comfort and support. I often wonder if I would have been able to stay in this demanding, stressful work without this soft place to fall. The loving partnership I have with Ivan and the happy home we’ve created make it possible for me to do this work and stay healthy and sane. When I get home, Ivan still asks, “How was work?” All I say is “Fine.” I need to leave it behind me. (I have nurse friends for when I do want to talk about it.) Yes, I’m still hungry and tired after a shift. Ivan always has a nice meal ready for me and then urges me to rest. What’s different now is that I’ve finally figured out that at these times, it is not food or sleep I crave, but intimacy and connection. After work, I often feel like I have so little left to give, but much more after a little loving.

When I reach for Ivan, I’m home.

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Tilda Shalof

Tilda Shalof RN, BScN, CNCC (C) has been a staff nurse in the Medical-Surgical Intensive Care Unit at Toronto General Hospital of the University Health Network, for the past twenty-four years. She is also the author of the bestseller, A Nurse’s Story and an outspoken patient advocate, passionate nurse leader, public speaker, and media commentator. She lives in Toronto with her husband, Ivan Lewis and their two sons, Harry and Max. Learn more about Tilda and her books at nursetilda.com.
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One Response to Nursing a marriage: Sex and the ICU

  1. Smithteamracing RN

    I work 12 hour days on an Oncology Unit. I enjoy my patient & coworkers & learn so much from them everyday. I find the changes taking place in healthcare are causing much stress in my life and the staffing cuts mean not enough people to do the job safely. Back pain is my frequent companion. I love my spouse & enjoy our time together very much.

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