Between Hero and a Hard Place

For anyone who doesn’t know, I recently left my 10  year career as a nurse. I knew with nurses week coming up I had to express myself. Although this is not content I will usually post here, it was important I share this from a platform where I could be honest and real. 

For most of us we are not strangers to sickness, disease or death. We all know somebody close to us who has made that dreaded trip to the hospital for a quick stitch, an end of life stay, or any number of ailments in between. We’ve all seen recent articles talking about overflowing emergency departments, of people being stuffed into closets, libraries and auditoriums, to make room for more. It’s no secret that there are doctor and nurse shortages; and hear countless stories about “nothing being done” or at the very least, “too little too late” for several unfortunate people. We’ve read the articles attacking hospital presidents, the government and of course, the front line healthcare workers themselves. These workers are the same people who give up holidays and weekends with their families, who work around the clock with little sleep and minimal breaks, all of whom choose to help others before helping themselves.

Yes, we all chose this career. We have the degrees we studied for in hopes that we’d obtain the jobs we got. It is a choice. It’s a career I chose for myself 10 years ago. I chose to be responsible for sick children whose parents frantically pace the room for hours on end waiting for answers. I chose to call families over the phone to notify them of a loved one’s final breaths. I chose to work 12 hours overtime in emergency so someone only had to wait 14 hours instead of waiting twice that long. I chose to be sworn at, physically and verbally assaulted, and regularly face sexually inappropriate actions and comments hurled my way almost daily. I chose to be the compassionate ear for grieving family members, and I chose to spend 20 minutes bathing a homeless man, peeling feces off of his skin and dressing a tumour on the side of his face the size of a football (full of things I won’t mention here). I chose all of this for little more than the cost of a latte.

This isn’t about the money.  It’s taboo. No one ever wants to discuss money. But the reality, when I tell people I left my career as a nurse, their first comment is “why would you leave such a good paying job?”. I want to get this out there. Anyone who makes “decent money” has to work harder for it. This seems fair. I think several jobs are extremely hard and there are many that I could never see myself doing and vice versa. A job is just that. You get paid for the work you do. A nurse in Ontario, makes, on average, between $27-40.00/hr. Let’s take the average amount in this range and say most nurses make about $33.50/hr. Now let’s break it down. The most common nursing task? Cleaning up bodily fluids. Whether it’s blood, urine, sputum, feces, or vomit, we all do it and we all have horror stories as a result. Let’s use feces for example as it is usually the most common. An incontinent patient with dementia has smeared feces all over the bed rails and curtains. It has leaked on the floor, it’s in their fingernails, it’s all over the sheets, and they can’t get out of bed. This chaos is usually a 2-3 person job, however finding help is next to impossible so you end up doing it yourself. As a result, you risk back injury, getting beat up, or at the very least, wearing it. You wash, change the bed sheets, put on an adult incontinence product and manage to escape with a couple scratches and dirty shoes which you can clean later; not now, there isn’t time. Many nurses are used to these things happening all the time and have become masters at doing this efficiently. This can take anywhere from 10-35 minutes but in general, about 20 minutes. You take that $33.50 and divide it into thirds. You now have $11.00. Now ask someone how much money it would take for them to do the same thing. The answer: “thousands”. Things most people wouldn’t do in a double dare, we choose to do for $11.00. I chose to juggle countless medications for people in all shapes and sizes of pills, needles, puffers, aero chambers, patches and creams, determined not to confuse one pill with another. I chose to be run off my feet, thrive on stress, and revel in the always changing atmosphere. I chose to dress in isolation gowns and sweat my way through them. I chose to pick the dried mucous out of the quadriplegics’ nose so he could breath better, I chose to stay up all night, long after being up all day trying to enjoy my “day off”. I chose to leave a dying patient alone so I could help save the life of the patient next door. I chose to face that patient who felt a weapon in a waiting room would get them faster service. I chose this career to help people. To witness the reward of a patient leaving the ward, and beam with pride when something I did, made a difference. It used to  feel like I was helping, I used to feel good about my work and I used to be proud to be part of a something so incredibly life altering. But I also made another choice years later. I chose to leave.   

I didn’t write this so I could pile more negativity on an already negative health care system. Although there are things I disagree with, and things I wish we could implement in our health care system that promote prevention instead of treatment. Health and wellness, instead of symptoms and side effects, but that’s for another day. I wanted to write this because I want people to see the other side of the coin. To know that, despite what it looks like from a distraught family members perspective, we are trying; sometimes trying so hard that we ourselves, are only hours away from burnout.

I chose to leave. I chose to step down, and I made a decision to put myself before my career because it’s what I needed. I wanted to enjoy my life and focus selfishly on my own physical and emotional state. I wanted to find myself while I still could. I chose my own health and wellness over my patient’s well-being. I chose to step out of my comfort zone in order to try new things. I chose to leave at the last chance I had before burnout took hold of me. I chose to be selfish.

The workers I left behind did not.

They continue to choose others over themselves. As I write this, now an outsider looking in, I feel even more appreciative of the work that every single staff member inside those hospital walls contributes. In 10 years of nursing I have developed relationships you can’t put into words. You become more than a team. You become family.

I worked with people who needed back surgery because they were injured in patient transfers, but they came back, despite increased risks of a repetition injury. I worked with a woman who had such bad hip pain she hobbled around the floor with a cane, taking care of her patients, doing everything they demanded of her when she could easily have been one herself. I worked with many young women as they dealt with heart wrenching miscarriages and came back to work, putting their grief aside so they could console family members in their own darkest hours. I worked with a man whose father was facing his final hours, but insisted on completing the end of his own shift because he “couldn’t just leave” his patients. I worked with dozens of new moms and dads who had to spend Christmas morning away from their new families. I even worked with a girl who came to work on her wedding night. I personally have my own opinion on this but  regardless, she refused to call in sick when she wasn’t so she worked! I worked with people who came to work sick. Hunched over, visiting the bathroom in between patients, turning green kind of sick. We’ve all done this. We don’t want to leave the team short because we know how hard it is to work short staffed, and how often it happens. I worked with a doctor who came to work after losing all of her worldly possessions in a house fire. Dealt with relocating her family and countless insurance claims, and battle all of the emotions and extra projects that come with a life altering event like this.

I worked with heroes.

I was surrounded by them everyday. I know first-hand how unappreciated hospital staff are. A thank you goes a long way but so does patience, understanding and empathy. A hospital is a stressful place for patients, staff and families. We are always told to put ourselves in our patient’s shoes and practice empathy. I ask everyone else to do the same. I ask that you look beyond the beeping machines, the whirring of stretcher wheels, the elevator doors opening to deliver new guests, the array of people running in all directions, the call bells singing, the phones ringing and the food trays being thrown on the floor. Look beyond it and silently watch the almost invisible lining of a heroes cape; watch as it moves graciously, yet urgently. Watch as it flows through hospital wings effortlessly, and watch it fall loyally against the backs of hospital workers as they stop for a second to catch their breath as the cape awaits its next trip.

You don’t get to choose one or the other. Happy Nurses Week to the people who choose to be a hero in a hard place.

I want to say thank you to every human I have ever worked with. I respect all of you so much for doing what you do every day. I know it is hard. Painstakingly hard at times, but I know you all have the drive and incredible patience to keep doing it day after day. I admire all of you for all different reasons. I am grateful to have been surrounded by people who don’t get grossed out by disgusting things; for people who can laugh in sorrow because it’s how we got through, and for the people who were so helpful throughout my career. Happy Nurses Week! To my fellow nurses, to the doctors who get a lot of eye rolls from nurses, and to all the other staff who have to put up with hearing nurses complain all day long! I love and miss you all.

16 responses to “Between Hero and a Hard Place”

  1. Alaina – I recently had open heart surgery in Kitchener and can definatley see where you are coming from – I gave praise every day to ALL the workers – I saw every day what they (nurses) were faced with as you have described in your blog – I said to mine God bless you all for doing what you are doing as I could not ! – I sent a 2 page letter to the staff after my return home thanking them ALL for the care I received as not knowing at times if I was going to live or die was what I was faced with – When the chips were down and my spirits low who was there to pick me up and give me a hug ? A nurse ! – I am still going to the hospital for check ups and when i am finished with my appointment I return to the 3rd floor ! – I go see the nurses and hospital staff from the girls that brought me my water to the ones cleaning the floor and say thank you, you were all part of my healthy recovery and a hug and smile is what is exchanged – You are ALL very SPECIAL to me and funny as it may be I have to remove my ball hat so they remember who I am, as being in street clothes rather than a hospital gown with my butt hanging out is a drastic change – I have always said you need to do what is best for YOU in life so in short, thank you for the time you spent as a nurse – there are many lives you have touched in a positive way and yes they to feel like i do – I wish you well in your future endeavors and leave your profession with no regrets as you have paid your dues ! –

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Truly nurses are heroes..and though our system has problems we are blessed in Canada to have health care available. We met many exceptional servant hearts while Bruce was in hospital. Nurses who with grace and patience helped him through the embarrassing reality of having to use a bedpan, be washed, shaved, fed….you are our blessing when days are dark…Alli thank you for all you have served and kudos for giving yourself self care…we say thank you to all the nurses you have made our lives better!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Being in Nursing for 42 years I applaud you for eloquently expressing yourself. Such a wonderful tribute to nurses and the profession. All so true, but we do it because we love it…it is not for the paycheck because so many others get paid a whole lot more and don’t deal with as many heart wrenching situations. No one could have said what you wrote better. Wishing you all the happiness in the world!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Alli, thanks for sharing. I really enjoyed your perspective. I didn’t realized nurses were paid so little. Definitely not paid based on the work that they do, or the aspects of life they give up. I’m impressed you lasted 10 years. Leaving for your own health and wellness is hopefully keeping you healthy. It looks like you’re getting a lot of mind and body rejuvenation now, well deserved. Enjoy love!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I could not have asked for a better read on a Mother’s Day morning. I shed a tear and laughed out loud, thank you. Reflecting on my career as a nurse, I still love what I do everyday. I respect and understand your decision to leave nursing and I hope that if the day arises that I look for payday or think about taking a sick day when I am not sick that I have the courage to step back and tackle a new career too. I hope this transition is going smoothly for you. You are a wonderful writer.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Alli,
    We worked together for a short time at CVH and a few shifts, few and far between when you were NRT. It’s safe to say that we weren’t particularly chummy or close as nurses. As I sit here and read this over for the sixth time since you published it, I sob. I have cried harder and harder each time that I have read this, and why? Because you were able to put into words the pain and exhaustion that we go through on a daily basis. As I start my life as someone’s wife and hopefully soon, someone’s mother, I read this and wonder if I have what to takes to stay in this line of work…to continue to give up the largest parts of myself, knowing full well that my family will only ever get the leftovers of me, at best. I commend you for leaving this thankless and unforgiving place and all I can hope is that I have a courage to do so as well before I am s permanent pile of leftovers.
    You are your own hero and a hero to those of us that are battling with the same decisions you made. I hope you are well, truly.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I hope you can follow your heart and do what you need to do to make the best of your life! Your passion for nursing is so strong but it’s good to think ahead…all the best! Thank you for reading!


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