(Update January 2013: I wrote this post as a tribute to the nurses I worked with when I accepted a day position a couple years back. I have since returned to the night shift for reasons too long to go into now, and have seen that this and more still holds true. This continues to be my most-viewed post. Thank you for all of your kind comments and related "Odes." You are all angels...)
When I left the night shift recently, a very dear friend wisely warned me to “never forget” where I came from. You know who you are. Mind, your message was heard. I offer you this sliver of a night shift nurse's reality:
I had to leave my daughter crying tonight.
I hadn’t had time to help her with her homework...I ran out of time while I was helping her brothers.
Dinner was “fend for yourself.” Dishes were piled. School papers scattered, neglected.
We missed another school event tonight…Mommy has to work.
I worked last night. It was busy, stressful. I had been at work since 6:45pm the night before, worked until 7:30am and had to chart until 8:30. By the time I got home it was 9am and I still had errands to run. (You can’t do ALL your shopping at 3am…when it's your day off and you can't sleep. Places of business are very limited in the middle of the night.) There were bills to pay.
Sleep is only for the lucky.
Once I finally lied down, I fell like a rock...hard and deep. I’d overslept and the kids were home…on their own again...struggling to “keep it down ‘cause Mom’s asleep!” After stumbling through my shower, I tried to listen to my kids tell me about their day with really nothing going on inside my head to enable me to retain anything. They could be telling me that they were shaving their head and moving to Amsterdam for all I knew.
Coffee. Where’s the coffee…
My husband gets home and out the door I go. What will be in store for me tonight? A high census? Call-ins? Or worse… Will a patient’s life be in my hands tonight?
We get good at being our own resource. There’s no one there to ask for advice. No managers, no educators. We’re on our own. The doctors are asleep in their call rooms and really don’t want to be bothered. In fact, we are so used to being barked at in the throes of half-unconsciousness that we think it’s how everybody just talks. We are given extra freedom to go with our gut…whether that’s good or bad, I don’t know.
What does the night shift do? Sometimes I feel like we are the ones who babysit the unit while the day shift is away. The night shift is an afterthought. There’s no food for sale at night because apparently night shift workers don’t eat. There’s never any meetings in the middle of the night because that would be absurd to call a meeting at 2am. (But isn’t that what you’re doing to us when you mandate us to be there at 2 in the afternoon?)
We get the crazies, the drunks, the sundowners. Nothing is ever scheduled, everything is a surprise.
The clinics aren’t open so you never know what you’re going to get. We wonder what in the world would bring you in to the Labor and Delivery unit at 3 in the morning for an aching hemorrhoid that you’ve been having trouble with for 4 days. What? Do you hear all these screaming women?? And you’re annoyed that I am in a hurry when you spend 20 minutes telling me about it? Of course I am! What about “Labor and Delivery” says a place to get my swollen butt looked at? You couldn’t wait 5 more hours to go to the clinic? I digress.
We are sleepy, but we are working hard. We are overlooked, but we are faithful. We are lonely, but united. We are irritable, but knowledgeable. We are independent, but deeply depend on each other. We work in the dark, but our humors are light. We all know what the “4am chill” is. We wake up, pep up, stay up, to try to keep up. Our stomachs are bloated, our bladders are full.
Life goes on without us, and we go on when life settles. We function in darkness, even in the daylight. Our light at the end of the tunnel is the tip of the sunrise. We have found ourselves driving into our driveways with no memory of ever driving home. And we have people’s lives in our hands in this state every day.
I couldn’t do it anymore. I had to make the decision to leave the night shift because of the toll it was taking on my health. Who wants an unhealthy labor nurse? My children were suffering. In my 14 years of working nights off and on, I never really got used to it. It never became easier. I admire those of you that just have some God-given ability to do this. I don’t have it. I’ll miss you, though. The conversations that go on at night are unforgettable. You’ve made me laugh when I’ve been at my very worst. Thanks for everything, and I’ll never forget you. You truly are the “hard core” of nursing.