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Quiet, please!

From the Winter 2011 issue of Scrubs

Some people will go to the ends of the earth for a quiet moment, and Jamie Fletcher is one of them. Last year, the ICU nurse left behind the daily grind at St. Joseph’s Health Centre in Toronto and headed for Base Camp at Mt. Everest. As she trekked for nine days through Tibetan villages, stream-filled hills and valleys and forests of rhododendron, the stress and pressures of her nursing life melted like snow. She made it to 17,500 feet, a spot where she not only found peace and quiet (save for a brief run-in with a yak), but had an up-close-and-personal view of the tallest mountain in the world. “It made the challenges in my life seem like a walk in the park,” says Fletcher. “Afterward, I felt as though I could handle anything that comes my way.”

But do you have to truly get away from it all to have an exquisitely quiet moment? A survey of nurses in various locales suggests not. What is non-negotiable is regularly taking the time to recharge your batteries—whether you do it for five minutes or five days. Everyone needs a breather, but perhaps no one more than a nurse. “Nurses know that too much contact with patients without a period of withdrawal makes for scattered attention, mistakes, anxiety, depression, and loss of interest,” says Steven Hendlin, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist in private practice in Newport Beach, CA. and a Fellow of the American Psychological Association. “For people like nurses, who are always dealing with other people’s pain and suffering, not having outside stress reducers may lead to depression and early burnout.”

Searching for Serenity

There are no rules about what constitutes the ideal interlude, and it doesn’t even have to be quiet. Maybe you seek solace at a rock concert, or by cheering on your favorite sports team. Yvonne Sannes, a home health nurse in Lancaster, CA rides motorcycles with her husband almost every weekend (the fact that they’re both almost 70 doesn’t stop them). Kim Bahnsen, a Nurse-Family Partnership supervisor in Port Matilda, PA, rides ATVs with her husband and son.

On the other hand, it could be that you use this time simply to take in the beauty of the world—visiting a botanical garden, or even a favorite flower shop on your way home from work; sitting on a cliff watching the fog roll in; or taking a car ride to the nearest river, lake or ocean. Or it may be a time you go inside yourself and block out the rest of the world by daydreaming or reciting affirmations. As long as your escape gives you a chance to remember—and be—exactly who you are, you know you’re doing it right.

Many nurses have more than one way they take refuge from the pressures of the job. Fletcher, for instance, doesn’t get to travel to exotic spots like Everest every day (or every year, for that matter), but she takes a moment for herself daily by switching on classical music after work. “I don’t use the television to escape any more,” says Fletcher. Instead of watching life, she now makes an effort to experience it.

A daily dose of Native American flute helps Paul Phelps wind down. A nurse who works half the year in the ICU at a Greeley, CO hospital, and half the year in Florida (where he cares for his aging parents, too), he also likes to bury himself in a book, taking care to choose one that has nothing to do with nursing. You might call that Phelps’ regular upkeep. In addition, he cultivates his fishing habit as often as he can in nearby creeks and lakes. “I tell my co-workers I only work to fish,” he says. The grandeur of the surrounding mountains, the trickle of cold-water streams, the occasional whir of a fishing reel, and the meditative wait for a catch all add to the serenity of those moments. “After 35 years of working in health care, I have come to understand the necessity of relaxing while away from work,” says Phelps.

To be meaningful, a time-out needn’t be the stuff dreams are made of. On days when you lose a patient or are short-handed at work, something as elementary as sitting down with a proper cup of tea can feel like a little slice of heaven. To Donna R. Pauling, a Nurse-Family Partnership nurse home visitor in Bloomsburg, PA, the perfect time out is making quilts for Quilts for Kids, an organization that distributes them to seriously ill children.

A little pampering can also go a long way. Simply keeping up with a regular pedicure–whether you do your own or go to a salon (definitely spring for the $5 foot massage!)–can lift you into another realm. To Ali Frisius, a pre-op nurse at Post Street Surgery Center in San Francisco, closing her bathroom door and easing into a hot bath with candles flickering nearby and a novel in her hand is pure pleasure. The heat of the water instantly dissipates the nervous energy she’s built up during the day. Other nurses find that just using their 15 minutes in the break room for a calming and repetitive activity like knitting or doing a crossword puzzle can be soothing. So can a brief meditation. “Simply closing your eyes for ten minutes, sitting still, with a straight back and feet on the floor—and doing this away from noise—can help you pull back into the present, slow down, and feel able to return to interacting with patients,” says psychologist Hendlin.

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Daryn Eller

Daryn Eller is a freelance writer based in Venice, Calif., who has written for Parents, Prevention and Ladies’ Home Journal.
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