What to do with All. The. Pain?
I am an oncology nurse these days. I cannot tell you how far this is outside my comfort zone.
For you see, as a surgical nurse for the whole of my career — most of my patients had surgery, recovered, and moved on.
My time spent in the ICU prepared me for the adrenaline surges and the emotional disconnect of the OR. If you got attached — you became ineffective. You learned to stow your feelings about the diagnosis, the prognosis, the patient, the family, their pain, your pain at watching their pain — All. The. Things — because that was the only way you could hope to help any of them.
And then they got discharged. One way or the other. In the ICU — they were moved to the floor…or received a celestial discharge against all your best efforts. But there was closure. In the OR —usually, anesthesia took them to the recovery room and you learned to live with never knowing. You moved on to the next case and you let go.
In My Now — I know. I talk to the patients. I talk to their families. I know All. The. Things. I field the phone calls and am bombarded with their fear and anguish. CANCER. One of the most frightening diagnoses in the medical community. Just a couple of decades ago — a death sentence for all who had it. Now — there are many treatments but still, it remains a matter of what type of cancer? Has it spread? Can it be resected? Will it come back?
All. The. Questions. All. The. Uncertainty.
The future is suddenly reduced to a day by day occurrence. And most Humans don’t do well with this sudden deceleration.
None of them realize how many times the nurse on the other end of the phone has had this very same conversation either. Or the toll it has taken on his/her soul.
Too often there is precious little we can do for our patients except listen. So we listen to their pain. And we let them vent their anguish and their hurt. We stay silent as they rage against their lack of control and scream out their frustration over the small things which go sideways. We suffer abuse — verbal and emotional at times because we are their only link to the people who told them they had cancer. And they are so very angry about that. And so very scared.
Where do we put our sad stories? The pain of our days? The pain that is Not Our Pain — yet we are exposed to it day after day after day until it wears a groove in our very being. The things we see, the stories of the lives of our patients, the diagnoses and prognoses which are more than words on a page for us. They are attached to living, breathing Humans. We dance with their emotions, their questions, their pain as we try to keep it at arm’s length and not let it wrap itself around our own psyche.
Some nurses drink. Ok, many nurses drink. Although of late, I have stopped that. A very excellent bottle of tequila sits in my fridge should I ever need its company — but I have found solace in other means these days.
Some nurses go to therapy. I did for over seven years. It was hands down the best money I ever spent. I found out why I landed in nursing to begin with and how to make friends with My Shadows who brought me here.
Some nurses find support with other nurses. I do this on a regular. But one must be cautious here. If you surround yourself with nurses who suffer from your same level of pain — you will pull each other down further into the swamp. The trick is to befriend nurses who have moved past their pain and found a way to deal with The Sad Stories. Sage Nurses didn’t get to be Sage Nurses and stay in nursing because they had no other options. They’re here because they survived their patient’s pain.
Some nurses leave nursing. Young nurses — who have options go into related fields that don’t require direct patient care. Sage nurses like me opt to retire way before they have to — getting away from direct patient care as soon as the clock strikes midnight.
It’s not a matter of if you burn-out, it’s always a matter of when.
I’ve done it. Most of us who have been in nursing any amount of time have. I used to have a two-year ‘attention’ span. Now I can usually make it about six before The Sad Stories overtake me and I have to have a change of scenery. In my current position in oncology — The Sad is deeper, thicker, heavier.
I have about eleven months left until I am eligible to retire from my current facility. And you can bet as soon as the clock strikes twelve on the appointed day — I’ll be running from the castle as fast as I can.
The Ball will be over.
I’ll be done dancing with The Sad Stories.