Nursing: the happiest job in the world ... or not

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Mary Gustafson, McKnight's Staff Writer
Mary Gustafson, McKnight's Staff Writer
Even if I hadn't been raised by a nurse, and even if I didn't write about the basic functions of their jobs on a daily basis for McKnight's, I would probably still idolize them. That much was clear to me recently when I had the rare opportunity to witness, quite possibly, the best and worst parts of a nurse's job.

Two weeks ago, just as I was leaving work, my parents called and told me that my sister's doctor had decided to deliver my soon-to-be nephew a couple weeks ahead of schedule due to minor complications. They stressed that I need not worry or rush — the baby likely wouldn't be delivered until the next evening — but please go check on your sister.

At the O.B. unit's nurse's station, I identified myself as the aunt-to-be and made my way to my sister's room. I noticed right away that the speaker on the in-utero heart monitor was turned way up. Nurses came in and out of the room, and I watched to make sure they fussed over my sister an appropriate amount. I had to report something back to Mom.

I must say, it was hard not to get caught up in the whole “miracle of life-ness” of it all. For the next 24 hours, I cared very little about anything other than my sister — and my nephew's — health and wellbeing.

By the end of my next day at work, I finally got an update saying my sister would probably have to have a C-section, so I made a mad dash to the hospital. I came running down the hall of the O.B. just as little Henry was being paraded through the nursery for the benefit of all the crying grandparents.

We watched through the windows as the supremely calm nurses talked my brother-in-law through holding the baby. I was blown away by the newness of life and my head was filled with all the clichés that nursery workers must hear every day. And for more than a few minutes, I wondered if I had the energy to go to nursing school at night. I couldn't imagine a job more perfect than handing a newborn over to brand new parents. This had to be the happiest job in the world.

I woke up the next morning giddy at the thought of being an aunt and plotting all the ways I'd work my way into that kid's life — picturing every soccer game, piano recital, spelling bee, holiday, First Communion.

Then I opened an email and learned that a friend had passed away very suddenly a couple days prior. He was 29 and healthy, as far as I knew, except for having had spina bifida. Desperate for more information I made phone calls and sent emails trying to find out what happened, and made the inevitable plans for attending the wake with some other friends.

It was jarring to transition so quickly from celebrating new life to absorbing the end of another. And I couldn't ignore the fact that this was something that nurses and other healthcare professionals deal with every day. The average nurse's willingness to handle life's biggest curveballs is astounding — whether they work in a nursery or a nursing home.

In the last week alone, two major studies demonstrated the long-term consequences of being a nurse.

One study found that shift workers — which very often include nursing home R.N.s and CNAs — carry a much higher risk for having a stroke or a heart attack than non-shift workers. That likelihood grew sharply for shift workers who work overnight shifts.

In adding insult to injury, a University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing study published this week found that nurse burnout rates were associated with another common nursing home affliction: catheter-associated urinary tract infections.

To reach this conclusion, “Investigators examined self-reported responses on emotional exhaustion, depersonalization and personal accomplishment to reach their conclusions. They identified emotional exhaustion as the key component to burnout syndrome.”

I doubt that many long-term care nurses would be surprised to read these findings, but that doesn't mean that facilities shouldn't work to address them. The researchers for both of these studies recommend taking steps to reduce burnout and offer easy fixes such as “launching a workplace wellness campaign.” I think everyone can agree that's easier said than done.

If there's one indisputable fact I've learned from being raised by nurse, it's that you'd be amazed how far simple “thank you” or a sympathetic hug can get you. Nurses — heroes or individuals “just doing their job” — are no exception.

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Daily Editors' Notes

McKnight's Daily Editor's Notes features commentary on the latest in long-term care news. Entries are written by Editorial Director John O'Connor on Monday and Friday; Staff Writer Tim Mullaney on Tuesday, Editor James M. Berklan on Wednesday and Senior Editor Elizabeth Newman on Thursday.

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