I’ve been trying to find the words for this blog post for a long time, actually long before I even stopped working at the hospital. Maybe it began when my daughter was born. I’ve talked about this shift before, the irreversible schism that happened in my soul once I had a child. My emotions expanded in ways I didn’t think possible; places of my heart that I had shut off became uncorked and years of suppressed feelings came pouring out like a waterfall. I changed and I started to think that maybe being an ICU nurse forever wasn’t feasible for me anymore, or at least desirable at this point in my life.
It really was a strange phenomenon. Suddenly with the addition of a tiny person in my world, all the pain and loss and heartbreak that I saw at work everyday and had been able to subdue, rose to the surface. I could no longer stuff it down or shut it away. My patients became real in a new way, as if blinders had been removed from my heart. Not that I didn’t care about my patients before; I just cared for them in an alternate capacity, one that closed me off enough from my emotions to be able to deal with these most heartbreaking moments of their lives. In many ways it had been protective and even beneficial. But I had lost that and it was making it very difficult to do my job.
All of my emotional volatility culminated when, a few months after I had returned from maternity leave, I was asked to take a fourteen year old boy who was most likely going to die from brain damage. By the end of my shift, we were coding him and I was staring at his mother’s face knowing that this was the end, for him physically and for her emotionally. It sounds very bizarre but I saw his life flash before my eyes in those last moments and all I could think about was how his mother had nursed him as an infant, chased him as a toddler, hugged him after his baseball games, and now held his hand as he slipped away. In that moment her pain became my own, tearing my insides in two, and I couldn’t imagine losing my precious daughter in the same way that she was losing her son. It was unfathomable. It was a tragedy. It was life and death. And I knew I couldn’t do it anymore.
Now, a year and a half removed from my ICU days, my life looks very different. I wipe a runny nose and fix lunches that my daughter may or may not eat, make a fool of myself chasing her around the playground and take the dishes out of the dishwasher day after day, the same actions on repeat. It is full of monotony and I can honestly say that’s been the best thing for me. I needed days where no one died. I needed to forget that terrible things happen to normal people everyday. I needed my most frustrating moments to be about getting Evy’s shoes on in the morning rather than running back and forth between two crumping ICU patients. I needed the monotony and it is healing me, helping to give me my perspective back.
I read this quote the other day and it quite literally blew my mind. I’m not sure why, it’s not complicated or verbose or even that eye-opening. But to me, it was profound and I’ll tell you why.
“Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid.” – Frederick Buechner.
These few words stopped me in my tracks. Gosh, I wish you could feel what I felt when I read this quote. This man, Frederick Buechner, deserves my thanks because this was the truth I had been trying to say in many more words and had yet to capture. I realized why my soul had needed rest and monotony, how emptying the dishwasher day after day was the best kind of catharsis. Because I needed to remember that the world was full of both terrible and beautiful things. I had actually forgotten that.
As I transition to becoming a different kind of nurse, a nurse practitioner headed for primary care, I have started to grieve the loss of critical care. I realize that I probably won’t ever again work with patients on ventilators or draw an ABG or help run a hospital code. There are many things I will miss and many things I won’t. I think it’s that way with any job. But now I’m moving on to a less severe, although not less important world, wanting to try my hand at the flu and immunizations and much less life-threatening problems. It sounds boring in comparison maybe but I don’t think so. I think it’s exactly what I need.
There are a million different kinds of people in the world and, accordingly, a million different types of nurses. Some can work in the ICU forever, some stay in primary care their whole career. Some transition from one area to the next, taking advantage of the endless opportunities in this field. So where do I fall? Maybe I could’ve stayed in the ICU longer. Maybe not. But I chose to go a different direction, not because I got “burned out,” but because I knew what my soul needed at that time. I needed to be home with my daughter and heal from the very real tragedies that I had had the privilege of being part of for the past six years. After working in the ICU for almost seven years I thought I could handle anything, when in reality, seven years in the ICU is what I could no longer handle.
There is beauty in watching my daughter dig in the sand. There is beauty in being a part of someone’s last moments on earth. The important thing is that I remember that the world is full of both. Beautiful, terrible moments. And everything in between.