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Secret things nurses REALLY think

iStock | agsandrew
iStock | agsandrew

Every nurse has them: those nasty little non-nursey thoughts that sneak into your brain like steel-toothed ferrets during a hard day.

They’re the thoughts that civilians hope we never actually think, the ones we feel guilty about, the ones we never admit we have until we’re in a well-lubricated frame of mind and in a safe place.

Auntie Agatha has those thoughts, and she’s not afraid to share them. Read on, my poppets….

1. Sometimes I don’t like you very much.

Seriously? Sometimes you piss me off. It doesn’t matter whether the “you” in question is a doctor, a patient, a family member, a lab tech or one of the pizza delivery dudes: You occasionally piss me right off. I’m only human, after all, and this job can hit stress levels that make a Red Terror Alert look like a day in a Victorian novel, all lace and picnics.

Even though I look patient and caring, inside I’m seething. I take care of it with AA: Advil and Alcohol, the nurse’s therapy of choice.

2. Sometimes I don’t like myself very much, either.

There are days when I’m just not as patient or I’m having communication problems or things just don’t seem to go right, and I’m filled with self-loathing. It takes some doing to remember that just because I do stupid things, I am not a stupid person; I’m merely having a stupid moment. Likewise, making a mistake doesn’t mean I need to turn in my license. It means I’ve made a mistake. Sometimes these feelings paralyze me, even after nearly a decade of being a nurse, and I wonder if I should go back to waiting tables.

3. I take a deep breath and steel myself when certain patients come out of surgery.

There are the doctors for whom every surgery is a foreverectomy, whose patients come back intubated and cold and physically exhausted while still unconscious. There are the doctors whose patient population is so old, poor, malnourished, unhealthy or otherwise deprived—through no fault of their own—that even a minor surgery is a major undertaking. And there are the doctors who dash in and out of the room so fast that their patients are left with more questions than answers.

When I see you coming, patients of those doctors, I steel myself. I know it’s going to be a long night. I know you’ll have pain, that you’ll be frightened, that I’ll have trouble reaching your surgeon for additional orders. The best I can do in some cases is to get through it with you. The only comfort I can offer is that while you hurt, I’m thinking of nothing else.

4. Sometimes I wonder if I’ve killed somebody.

This is one of those middle-of-the-night thoughts that every nurse has about a patient or two. What if the medicine I gave that person hastened his death? What if the procedure we performed at the bedside led directly to her going down the tubes? What could I have done differently?

5. I do not want a nurse like me when I have surgery.

Because you never look as good to yourself as other people do, I have a fear of ending up with a nurse like me when I have surgery. I know deep down that I’m a good nurse, that I do everything expected of me and more, but I see all the little linty corners of my own brain as I’m working. I know all the places I skimp so that I can spend time on stuff I think is more important, like just sitting with a patient at 3 a.m. I know how resentful I can be toward a resident. I know how hard I try and how hard I work, but somehow I never seem to be as good as the people I work with, whom I idolize.

6. I would never, ever, ever do anything else.

If I won the lottery tomorrow, would I keep working? You bet my rapidly widening butt I would. I love what I do with a fierceness I never expected I would feel, and I love my patients—even the ones who drive me crazy—the same way. Nursing has its moments of sheer boredom and repetition, as well as soul-searingly hard, gross, dirty work, but when it’s good, there’s nothing like it. There is no better feeling than having somebody say to me, “I was scared before, but you made me feel better.” There are no words that’ll make my shoulders straighten faster than “Thank you, Nurse.”

I want to get better at my job every time I do it. I want to do everything right, keep improving my skills and keep learning new things. Every interaction I have, no matter which side of the bed I’m on, is an opportunity for me to do better at my job. And I love that.

7. Because of all of these things, both bad and good, I am incredibly lucky.

Most people get the chance to touch two or three lives in a meaningful way. I’ve got my two or three, and I’m only a third of the way into my career. I am the most fortunate woman I know. I work harder than any of my friends. I have more heartache than most people. I work crazy hours, my feet hurt and occasionally my job is dangerous and dirty.

I am a nurse. And I still grin ear to ear when I say that.

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Agatha Lellis

Agatha Lellis is a nurse whose coffee is brought to her every morning by a chipmunk. Bluebirds help her to dress, and small woodland creatures sing her to sleep each night. She writes a monthly advice column, "Ask Aunt Agatha," here on Scrubs; you can send her questions to be answered at

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30 Responses to Secret things nurses REALLY think

  1. Norma

    Thank you for this. Perfect timing :-).

  2. Deb Wagner

    NEVER EVER assume that if a woman looks a bit older than the male patient she’s visiting that she is his Mom…oops..

  3. cheryl

    Make sure if you bring a newborn in to a mom & an older man is sitting with her don’t say what a beautiful baby, your father must be so proud, It turned out to be
    her husband Ugh

  4. Jean Malizia

    Thanks, I really needed this.

  5. Barbara Richard

    Words to live by!

  6. Tory

    Thanks so much for posting this! It was just what I needed to hear today. Being a new nurse is so scary, especially when you got those “un-nursely thoughts”. Helps to know it’s all “normal”..

  7. Sandy Grambow

    I have tears in my eyes reading this. I have been a nurse for 36 years and I have felt all of those things at one time or another yet I know this is what I was born to do. I was born to be a nurse. It was a bit frightening that my feelings were put so eloquently in these paragraphs. We are human afterall and sometimes we have to remind ourselves of that. What was written should be given to all nursing grads before they embark on their journey into nursing. Thank you!

  8. Jobi

    Thanks for verbalizing exactly how I have been feeling lately. It makes me feel like I am possibly…normal?

  9. Jackie

    Awesome! You have seen right into my brain/soul!

  10. Jo, I absolutely LOVE this. It is like you looked into my heart and wrote everything I feel about why I chose nursing as my career. Thank you for this post! It made me tear up a little to know there really are other wonderful and amazing RN’s out there :)

  11. nan

    Jo, you hit the nail right on the head. I can remember feeling all of these feelings during my 36 years of working as an RN. Now that I can no longer work,[ I’m now disabled due to severe back pain and on too much medication to remember all I need to do,] I think of just the good things that happened during my career. Like the letter from a patient’s girlfriend after he passed away from metastatic cancer at age 37, 2 days after I last took care of him. She knew I was a student, so she got the dorm’s address and wrote to me about how I brought hope and love with me every time I entered the room, and what a great RN I was becoming. That memory still echoes in my brain, and I hope that I became the nurse she said I was going to become. I miss my career so much.
    To those that are still working: Love your job. Learn all you can-by reading, going to classes, or just plain asking questions. Treat each and every patient, regarless of age or gender, like they were your beloved Mother. Most importantly: when you leave work, leave it there. Use your time off to recoup and regenerate. To quote Cherry Ames, Student Nurse “What you see here, what you hear here, when you leave here, let it stay here.”

  12. Alice

    One of my favorite un nursey thoughts: a little pillow therapy for that really annoying patient

    • sallypat RN

      I understand where you are coming from. There was a time nurses were highly respected. I think it started to go out the window with the nursing caps. You have to be tough and smart to be a nurse.

    • Lisa Jackson

      Ah yes, we all have that one patient that we want to smother with a pillow!!

  13. Jeanne Vacca

    Thanks,Jo.I’m glad I’m not the only one who has thoughts like these.

  14. JennRN RN

    Sometimes I think we all have patients we prefer to get,…. and there are ones who we pray NOT to get. I dont think it effects the care we give though. At least I would hope not.

  15. ellicechristianna

    i loved this article.

  16. mhaggerty3315 CNA

    LOVE THIS!!!!

  17. dweitzel

    Nice to know your not the only one who has these thoughts.

  18. sallypat RN

    Had those thoughts more often than I care to admit. I like the comment from Alice about “pillow therapy.”

  19. deejay

    I am a LPN. I work as a private duty nurse. I graduated from Sacred Heart School of Practical Nursing in 1971. The school no longer exists as well as the hospital on Seton Drive in Cumberland, MD. I love my job and yes when I worked in the hospital I had patients that I wanted to do pillow therapy on. But, I always took excellent care of them, no matter how big a pain in the butt they were. I get to retire next October. I am going to miss it a lot. I won’t miss the aches and pains of doing it all by yourself. I don’t think I know many nurses that don’t have back problems. I had back surgery in 1990. Am still going strong at 64.

  20. mmcnurse

    So tonight a male pt asked me why my hair was pulled back, so I explained that it was part of our dress code. To which he replied, well you should not do it because with your face you can’t pull it off. Inside I was screaming ” and you sir should not speak out of your ass!!!!!”

  21. tinathecma

    Having worked in Telemetry, this article definitely hit home. It’s good to know that others have felt the same as I have. I’ve kept my thoughts to myself, I see that I’m human just like every one else. Thanks for assuring me that I am sane =)

  22. Iamsandra

    Too funny, wish I could share it.

  23. tom combs

    Funny, powerful and so straight-up HONEST!
    I think doctors share the same feelings – for sure I know one that has (-:

  24. alaskaRN

    As another nurse whose stethoscopes are now hanging on the wall. I can only say Amen to all of the other comments. Agatha, you have written so well about what my nurse brain thought sometimes while I was working the floor. My youngest daughter is entering nursing school and she will inherit the now resting stethoscopes. I told her she had to read this article and refer back to it …….. LOTS!!!! I am humbled and grateful I was lucky enough to be “called” to my profession. Rock on!!!!!! :)

  25. Cathy DeRydt Mazur

    I do still love NICU nursing. I have been doing it for 40 years on night shift, but I am tired and in constant pain. I’m ready to be done. I don’t regret a day. This career has given me as much as I have given it. But it is changing too much…’s just another business and money is what matters. My patience for all of it is waning.