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Should what happens in the hospital…stay in the hospital?

iStock | Maridav
iStock | Maridav

“And then I stuck a whoopin’ big needle—“ I looked up and saw my host’s eyes widen in surprise and fear. The entire table of six grew silent and I mentally slapped my hand against my own forehead. I’d done it again: tried to share a work story with friends, forgetting that the average person is uncomfortable with blood and likely scared of needles.

Americans are all about work. Some people’s job details 
are boring, others too technical for non-initiates to understand, but mine tend to make people sick. I hadn’t anticipated this aspect of nursing—that it’s socially isolating—when in midlife I decided to return to school to become
an RN. I was so excited about entering the world of healthcare I assumed others would share my excitement. In many ways they did. But I’ve learned the hard way that the bonds of friendship and family cannot make the details of a dirty job tolerable to the average person. In fact, there are nursing stories I’ve 
never shared with anyone outside the hospital because they’re just too odd, too much a departure from normalcy even in the world of healthcare, where we routinely shove tubes in people’s rear ends, collect stool samples for the lab and carefully measure volumes of urine before flushing it down the drain.

One story: the patient we called “the turd burglar.” I’m going to leave out all possible identifying details and say only that this patient had cancer in his brain and his mental status was extremely compromised. His slipping grip on reality manifested itself bizarrely: He liked to hold onto, and sometimes hide, his own stool. One day his nurse found a large turd nestled in his empty Kleenex box. Another day a group of nursing students mistook the brown mush in his hand for leftover bran muffin. “No,” I told them, “that’s his own feces.”

A normal reaction after an upsetting encounter like this at work might be to call a friend and talk it over or unwind while cooking dinner. Turd burgling was the last thing I wanted to think about while I prepared food, and no one in my circle of friends would react with anything other than horror and disgust when hearing about this poor patient.

We’re all supposed to be repulsed by behavior that is scarily outside the norm, especially when human waste is involved. But taking care of this patient was a normal work experience and I can think of myriad similar situations. The proverbial “ass-plosions,” the confused patients who walk around and defecate on the floor. Even the example all nurses joke about: diarrhea, which we discuss over lunch or drinks. Non-nurses would be better off eating or having cocktails somewhere else, and we’d like to join them, except it would mean talking less about what’s really on our minds.


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Theresa Brown, RN

Theresa Brown, RN, lives and works in the Pittsburgh area. She received her BSN from the University of Pittsburgh, and during what she calls her past life, a PhD in English from the University of Chicago.

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6 Responses to Should what happens in the hospital…stay in the hospital?

  1. cbatchelder

    I feel sad when people mistake my stories as me being cold or heartless. I try to find humor in difficult times to lighten the burden of working in oncology. Sometimes I feel like I am grieving too though and just want to tell someone about a patient of mine who passed. It’s not that I even need to dwell on the news, I just want to share it with someone and be allowed to acknowledge my sadness.

  2. ericka

    I am very lucky that I come from a family with medical experience. While I do get the “Mommmm! Yuck!” from my kids my mother is the number one support when it comes to my experiences at work.. There is never an “ewwww” uttered from her lips. There is much listening , comforting, and very good suggestions on how to handle certain difficult situations. She also gets the humor out of certain situations that no one other then medical personnel would get. As a child I would sit and listen to my parents discuss their day. It often sounded like the days I have now. It is very natural for me to want to come home and discuss over dinner what went on. That’s when I save it for my Mother and other friends who are nurses.

  3. kelbieone8

    I am very lucky that my sister both blood and Best friends are all nurses. Nobody else likes to hang out with us because of work conversations, But man we are a fun group!! Especailly at family meals

  4. Courtnee Robinson

    I was in Surgical Tech school when I meet my husband. I grew up in a medical family so talking about work at the dinner table was an everyday occurrence. One day we were out having lunch and I began to tell my husband about my day. He turned green and asked if we could talk about baseball. I laughed and informed him that I know nothing about baseball. We have now been married 10 years and he still puts up with my stories.

  5. AcuteLife

    When I worked in the Cardiac Cath Lab, I had a reputation for being able to start difficult foley caths; under the sterile drapes, while the pt had to keep their legs straight, without contaminating the sterile field. During one busy week I was called again to start a foley. Under the drapes I dove, gently separated the pt’s legs and without thinking blurted out “Oh, I remember you!” Just 4 days prior I had started a foley on a female pt who’s genetial area was covered with warts. This was the same pt.

  6. jalynnro13

    1. My mom was a nurse for 40 years. God Bless her! She has been my saving grace when I need to vent or debrief. She worked in a small midwestern town of less than 3, 000 and knows very well about HIPAA/confidentiality. So, it’s been a blessing to be able to call her wherever I’ve lived to discuss my day. Over the years my husband has become less “green,” too, and has been able to tolerate more experiences.
    2. I’m not the only one who “over thinks” safety and situations?! My kids are the poor recipients of my fears. New DOT approved helmets for them on 4-wheelers (where was mine as a kid?), no riding in the back of trucks (yeah, all the time for me!), swim lessons from birth (what swim lessons?), etc! I’ve seen the aftermath after years in the ER….maybe a little PTSD? Maybe…