5 ways the ICU changed me

Thinkstock | Wavebreakmedia Ltd
Thinkstock | Wavebreakmedia Ltd

Five years ago, I took a job in the surgery/trauma intensive care unit directly out of school with no experience and little understanding of the medical world. Thankfully, it’s been a great fit for me and I’ve learned some fascinating lessons along the way.

This may be true for a lot of nurses, but here’s the effect the ICU has had on me, and a few ways I’ve changed dramatically from that scared, novice nurse…

1. Few things gross me out anymore. After all the flying wads of trach phlegm, exposed bone and tissue in a trauma, and burn dressing changes, few physical injuries surprise me. While no one likes cleaning up CDiff diarrhea or the aftermath of lactulose, you grow immune to the daily grind of bodily functions and can identify many conditions simply by their stench. Now, inversely, I peek under the sheet for a look at the traumatic amputation or gangrenous leg. Call it a twisted nursing thrill.

2. I watch people on the street and try to analyze their medical conditions. When I’m at any public event, I’m constantly (mentally) noting signs of diabetes, cancer, liver failure or alcoholism. As a nurse, you develop a keen innate diagnostic sense based on seeing the same physical manifestations in your patients in the hospital and it becomes an entertaining pastime, although your friends and relatives think you’re crazy.

3. People want to hear my stories (although not at the dinner table). From the antics of psych patients trying to escape the hospital to shocking words said from postanesthetic mouths to the gut-wrenching details of an especially dramatic trauma, people are fascinated with the world of traumatic medicine. Now my “everyday” is a new tale of critical care at its finest.

4. I have a permanent case of worst-case-scenario syndrome. In my mind, there’s no such thing as a routine car wreck that doesn’t leave you with some life-threatening injury. Daily activities that most people take for granted, like riding an elevator, going sledding on a snow day or playing baseball, all carry with them exaggerated (although very possible, in my mind) repercussions from all the random injuries I’ve seen. Always wear your seatbelt. Never stop to help someone on the side of the road; just call the police. If you have the worst headache of your life, go straight to the ED for a head CT. I’m always surprised when an accident or injury doesn’t invoke all the worst possible complications.

5. I have developed a deeper capacity for both sorrow and joy. From holding a patient’s hand as she passes away to consoling a father over a newly paralyzed son to celebrating in the joy of unbelievable recoveries, I’ve experienced deeper emotions than I ever thought possible. Seeing the raw exposure of pain and loss has helped me appreciate the pendulum of life circumstances that swings between happiness and sadness, grief and hope. I understand people better, emotions deeper and my calling to a greater degree.

Natalie Bridges, RN,BSN,CCRN, has worked in the trauma/surgery intensive care unit at an urban hospital in Dallas, TX for more than five years. She runs the blog Thirtyeightfive.com, which incorporates both her life as a nurse and a patient.

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