Why nurses never get a break

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I was trying to take a small leave – just for some R&R – from my job, but my coworkers wouldn’t leave me alone.

Then it hit me why we nurses can’t ever step away long enough to get the rest that we need. Yes, some of us are incurable workaholics. Some of us are incapable of putting our own needs before the needs of others. But I think the main reason is that  our manipulative coworkers draw us back when we try to get away!

The following is an excerpt from the chapter “Sisters of the Air” in A Nurse’s Story: Life, Death and In-Between in an Intensive Care Unit by Tilda Shalof.

“Yo, Tilda! Listen, since you’ve gone incommunicado, I’m calling to tell you the latest news. The hospital has a new mascot.

“She’s this huge woman who sits outside the front entrance every day in a wheelchair, calling out to everyone who walks by. I swear, she’s the world’s ugliest woman. Her legs are wrapped in drippy bandages and she’s holding her IV pole with one hand like it’s an umbrella and smoking a cigarette with the other.

“She gets people to collect cigarette butts off the lawn and then she stuffs them all into one butt and has a free smoke! Then she chatters away all day about how she used to be in show business, but the doctors took out her ribs and shocked her and now she can’t shovel snow any more. She keeps calling out that they’re using her as a guinea pig, a scapegoat and a miner’s canary—all because of the bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima.

“Get the picture? Then at the end of the day, the Wheel-Trans bus comes and—what that poor driver has to put up with—takes her away!”

Of course, I burst out laughing, but tried to stifle it. It wasn’t right to laugh.

“Thanks for that information, Justine. I can hardly wait to meet her,” I said.

“So, Til, when are you coming back to work?”

“Let me talk to her,” I heard Laura say and could just picture her grabbing the phone from Justine. “Get your butt back in here, Oh Sensitive One. We need you. Do you know how short-staffed we are? We have two doubles and a sick call—one of them Nell Mason, of course—and I’ve been on the phone all morning calling for overtime. Some team player you are.”

Frances was next. “How ya doin’, Tillie? Oh, we miss you so much. Come back already. You’re not going to quit, are you? We’re all going out for drinks this week, it’s Justine’s birthday. Can you join us? Work has been so interesting lately. We’ve done lots of transplants—lung and liver—and we even did something new—a combined kidney, pancreas, plus liver and intestinal transplant on a young boy who had a rare idiopathic coagulopathy. He’s doing really well for a guy that was so sick when he came in, with clots throughout his abdomen and pelvis, one of them obstructing his—” “Time’s up, Jabber Jaws,” I could hear Laura tell her. It sounded like Laura was trying to yank the phone away.

“Old Bossy Boots here won’t let me talk any more. You come back soon,” Frances managed to call into the phone as Nicole got on the line to tell me she was dating someone new—a nephrology resident, Oliver, who had rotated through our ICU and was very well liked—and she was very happy. “This might be the one,” she said.

Then Tracy came on the line to tell me quietly—she wasn’t ready to tell the others—that she was pregnant. She was a few weeks along, but she and Ron had been trying for a long time and were ecstatic.

I called Rosemary the next morning and told her I was ready to return. Would you do the same for your team?

Excerpted from A Nurse’s Story: Life, Death and In-Between in an Intensive Care Unit. Copyright © 2004 Tilda Shalof. Published by McClelland & Stewart Ltd. Reproduced by arrangement with the publisher. All rights reserved.

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Tilda Shalof

Tilda Shalof RN, BScN, CNCC (C) has been a staff nurse in the Medical-Surgical Intensive Care Unit at Toronto General Hospital of the University Health Network, for the past twenty-four years. She is also the author of the bestseller, A Nurse’s Story and an outspoken patient advocate, passionate nurse leader, public speaker, and media commentator. She lives in Toronto with her husband, Ivan Lewis and their two sons, Harry and Max. Learn more about Tilda and her books at nursetilda.com.

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5 Responses to Why nurses never get a break

  1. This site is great ! After working at the same hospital for 40 yrs., retiring, then volunteering there for almost 10 more yrs., have finally retired, following back surgery. I miss my “nursing life” so very much and would give anything to be able to go back to all the hectic, short staffed evenings again. There is nothing like being a Nurse !!!

  2. offroadnurse RN

    Nope, I never feel guilty about my time off. I work very hard, come home very tired and deservedly wiped clean of empathy for anyone’s problems. I need to recharge often, being that I am not in my 20’s any more and that patients these days are so demanding, so sick and so complex. I give everything to them when I am with them, but when it is time for vacation, I check out of the job mentally. It’s the only way that I, personally, can survive this profession. When I come back, I am smiling and ready to dig in. So…if I am on the soft white sands of a beach or running and laughing with my grand kids, don’t call me….please.

    • Scrubs Editor Scrubs Blogger

      Well said, offroadnurse! Everyone needs R&R to keep up with the demands of nursing!

  3. ICURN2005

    While I really do enjoy the fast paced chaoticness of working short staffed as a nurse, there are just times I want to get away from it. Speaking from my own personal experience of my husband having been diagnosed with cancer. I have so much going on with that, that family comes first for me and my job comes second. That is why I went supplemental, so I could be at home while we adjust to a “new normal” for us which has involved surgery, chemo, and he has another upcoming surgery.