5 strategies for the sick nurse: How to succeed in your career despite health issues


iStock | Katie Nesling

iStock | Katie Nesling

In June 2009, I found myself excited and anxious to start my first nursing career and also unexpectedly diagnosed with a chronic autoimmune disease. I literally started having gastrointestinal symptoms my first day on the job. Not exactly what I had planned for as a start to my life as a nurse.

Many people choose nursing to help others, to see sick people become well again, and unfortunately sometimes we may find ourselves on the other side of the health equation. If you suffer from an illness or a debilitating medical condition, know you’re not alone.

Five years into my diagnosis, I’ve learned a thing or two about how to navigate the challenges of being both a nurse and patient, and have developed some strategies to help you maintain your work-life balance.

1. Eat a healthy diet. When I started doing research into dietary strategies for managing and improving my disease, I found I wasn’t eating exactly what my body needed to heal. Over several years, I developed a way of eating that helped fuel my body for my work as a nurse and gave me the energy that I needed. My new eating habits meant I had to abandon the hospital vending machine and make my own lunches for work, but it has been worth it. Are you eating something that may be deleterious to your condition? Do you need to finally break up with the vending machine? Talk to your doctor and do some research about the best diet plan for you based on your condition.

2. Plan ahead. If you find yourself with certain dietary restrictions, it’s often necessary to plan meals and snacks ahead of time. Make a grocery list for the week and spend an afternoon getting all the ingredients and cooking bulk portions to eat over your several shifts ahead. Freeze extra portions for an easy dinner after a stressful night or day. Keep healthy snacks on hand for those days when you only have a few minutes in the breakroom. Don’t let yourself be caught unprepared because that’s often when you will fail your diet regimen—and no one wants you to see you compromise your health!

3. Find a practitioner you can trust. We’ve all experienced the full spectrum of practitioners from those we love to those we don’t. Find someone you can trust as a respected health professional who also respects your knowledge as a nurse. If you can come together under your common basis of health understanding, you’ll find your relationship more beneficial on both sides.

4. Manage your stress. I know, this sounds like a joke for nurses, right? When you feel yourself getting overcome, take a deep breath and re-prioritize. Don’t be afraid to ask for help from others (it’s a team effort!) and, if necessary, let your manager or charge nurse know about your condition. On days off, find a yoga class you enjoy, go on a walk in your neighborhood or find a relaxing hobby that can help you decompress from the stress of three in a row. Prioritize yourself on those days off and allow family and friends to help you with any stressors at home.

5. Be honest with others. Don’t let embarrassment or pride keep you from getting and staying healthy. Let a coworker know if you need to take a break during a shift or talk to your manager about reworking your schedule to fit your needs. Your place of employment wants to keep you and most often they will work with you to help you. If all else fails and you find yourself in a negative situation with inadequate support, don’t be afraid to take that leap and find another employer who will help meet your needs. In asking for help, you’re being brave and courageous and others will respect you for it.

Nursing can be tiring but also extremely rewarding work—and you want to remain at your best level of health to give the most to your patients and their families. Find a balance that works best for you personally and listen to the advice you give your own patients every day: Take care of yourself.

Natalie Bridges has worked in a surgical trauma ICU for more than five years as an RN BSN and also obtained her CCRN. She was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis more than five years ago. She writes a blog,, aimed at helping nurses as well as others with medical conditions optimize their health. Her goal is to help nurses be the healthiest they can be!

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