Monday, April 02, 2007
How to End the Nursing Shortage
Within the past week, I've heard two nurses deliver impassioned tirades about why the field's so difficult (and understaffed). I know these nurses in different contexts: one at the hospital, one in the classroom. They're different ages and have different backgrounds, and between the two of them, they've done just about every kind of nursing. While two people isn't a statistically reliable sample, these factors suggest that their complaints are largely true across the board.
Both of them report that nurses get abused by everybody: by patients, other nurses, and doctors. The abuse ranges from the verbal (being called stupid or cursed at) to the physical (having excrement thrown at you). Add that to the sheer physical demands of the job, especially in trauma/ED, and you have a surefire recipe for burnout. One of the nurses said, "You go into this because you want to make a difference in people's lives, but most of the time, you don't -- or you don't feel like you do. You just get put down."
Both of these nurses are extremely kind, articulate, intelligent people, and I was shocked to hear how consistently they'd felt belittled. In my two and a half years volunteering in the ED, I've certainly seen bad patient behavior, but I've heard more patients praising their nurses, and I've never seen a doctor insult a nurse. One of the nurses delivered this tirade in front of the nursing station and next to a doctor, which suggests that she was comfortable with at least that set of colleagues. Still, the bitterness in her voice was unmistakable.
“So why do you do it?” I asked her. “Why stay in the field?” (The other nurse has left the field.)
To explain why she stays, she told me two stories. One was about helping to resuscitate a toddler: the child had been brought in blue after having drowned, and left the hospital pink and yelling, to everyone’s joy. “That’s the best feeling in the world.” A few days later, the mother brought the child back to the hospital to thank the medical team, and they all cried.
The second story was about helping the family of a dying patient: respecting their wishes and telling them they were doing the right thing; caring for several of them in the patient’s room when they became ill themselves, so they wouldn’t have to leave the patient’s side; allowing them to stay in the room as long as they needed to after the patient died. “I didn’t do anything special; I just did what I’d do for anyone, what I’d want myself in that situation.” But the family wrote a letter to the hospital praising the nurse’s care, saying how wonderful she’d been. “Whenever I have a bad day at work, I go home and reread that letter, and think, ‘Okay, this is why I do this.’”
I’ve always made a point of thanking the nurses who’ve cared for me, and when I hear a patient praise a particular nurse, I try to tell the nurse about it. To me, these actions are routine common courtesy; until last night, I didn’t realize just how important they are.
If you want to help end the nursing shortage, say “thank you” to a nurse. Better yet, write a letter your nurse can read after a tough day.
And whatever you do, don’t throw excrement.