By B. Betty, RN

Many of us leave acute care hospitals in part because the treatments we are required to administer often prolong suffering, and the suffering  becomes too much to bear.  We do what we can to  prolong life-sometimes simply because a misguided loved one can’t let go or come to terms with their own mortality.

Daily we see and witness grief and pain. When the body fails, there are those left behind who fall apart; raw humanity left to be gathered and gently pieced back together by a nurse’s competent hands.

I no longer go home with an adrenaline rush from straddling unconscious patients on moving gurneys, pound chests with rhythmic abandon in synchronized thumps while another nurse runs next to me desperately squeezing the oxygen bag that is attached to the breathing tube the doctor just shoved down a dying man’s throat. We hope this death is one that will not linger. We all know this rarely ends well.  We know futility when we see it. And yet, we proceed.

These moments are followed by calls to weeping families, disease process assessment and clincial discussions with doctors, mind numbing charting in triplicate, and always an incident report for “internal tracking purposes.” There will not be any time for reflection or debriefing, just quiet and brisk efficiency.

So many of us are soul weary from being around humanity at its most vulnerable  We can’t unsee or undo the years of tending to the core of life. All those souls that have passed through our care leave their mark on our psyche.

We are all witness to bad deaths, bad lives, bad choices, bad resuscitations that just prolong suffering and the inevitable. We can’t continue and we can’t stop either. We  know too much. It affects our view of life and living, of dignity, of dying. It is a constant war.

I know now, why soldiers come home from warzones and land-mine strewn wastelands full of suffering and death, and why they request to go back. There is no “normal” that will be comfortable, again. Being affected by extreme life events most people never see make it impossible to be around “normal” for very long.

Casual conversation is tedious and trite.  Everyday troubles are no longer relatable. The ability to make small talk or smile is strained  and mind numbing at best.  My mind wanders to my patients. The dead ones I tried to save. The ones still alive being held in limbo by machines. Being around “normal” makes me feel like a freak. It makes me anxious and negative. Pessimistic and jaded. I’m overly jumpy, constantly scanning for danger. I’m short tempered and easily annoyed. This mundane routine is too hard to take.

Death and dying are sacred moments that should not be witnessed by strangers. We are privy to them because we are  “Nurse.” Darkness and tears are our normal. Intimate moments of bodily function, fear, illness and the unknown we maneuver with ease. It is both a blessing and a curse to bear witness to other people’s pain. We do it well. It is all we know.

We see suffering every day. The smell of human blood and feces comes home with us more days than not. We break ribs doing CPR, cause bruising by jamming needles into veins and arteries so we can administer serums with their promises of life and hope. We prep bodies for the morgue, go to lunch with the smell of  plastic body bags still clinging to our nostrils. This is our normal.

Once a nurse, we can never go back. No matter if we want to, or not.