Today I woke up pretty late. I had gotten a good eight hours of sleep at least, and I should have felt rested, but I did not. I never did the first day following my stretch of twelve hours shifts as an RN. That’s just how it was.
As I stood in front of the mirror some time later, after a huge mug of coffee and a refreshing shower, I grimaced at my red eyes. I tried lubricant drops and even Visine, but it was pointless. My eyes felt gritty and sore. And that’s just how it was.
That’s how my eyes felt after working all weekend. My mind felt much the same, like no amount of lubrication could quick start it. Something about it reminded me of the morning after a long night of partying in my twenties, and it would take a day to get over it just like it did back then. You see, I was suffering from a Nurse hangover.
I’ve had a lot of different jobs in my day. I’ve waited tables, car-hopped, and tended bar. I’ve been on an assembly line in a factory and dealt with retail customers on Christmas Eve. I’ve worked third shift, night shift, and split shifts. But nothing, I tell you nothing makes me feel quite so haggard as a string of consecutive nursing shifts at the bedside. Something about it wears me out.
I look at the roadmap of veins on my legs, left there before I had the foresight to wear support stockings, and I know it’s physically demanding. My co-worker’s recent back surgery tells me that’s the truth, but I think there’s more to it. I’ve been physically challenged to the point of injury when I was in boot camp, but the weariness I feel after thirteen hours bedside is an animal all its own.
No, I think a nursing hangover is one part physical, two parts mental, and smattering of emotional fatigue thrown in for good measure. A typical day at the bedside will certainly leave you with sore feet from standing and running all day, but the mental exhaustion of remembering medicine side effects, titration volumes, and physical symptoms of any given disease process would leave even Einstein frazzled. And even if everything is going smoothly there’s always the chance of rain. You set at ready at all times so even when it’s “quiet” or “slow” you can’t really relax. You know it could fall apart at any moment, and that’s exhausting.
Top it off with the emotional stress of death and being strong in the face of grief, and any pastor would crumble. When you realize there’s some situations you cannot change no matter how hard you try, it’s supremely draining. My most exhausting day to this point remains the one where I cared for a young postpartum mother whose baby had been stillborn. I watched her hold that infant all day, and I just held her hand and my tears. There was nothing more I could do.
So factor in the things you cannot change, the illnesses you cannot treat, the noncompliant patients you can’t convince, or the unrealistic demands you can’t possibly fill, and you’re left with the wind sucked from your sails. You’re left adrift on adrenaline that can only drive you for so long. You clock out, drive home on some God-given autopilot, and pass out on a pillow of sheer exhaustion. Do that for another day, or two, or three, and you’re rewarded with a hangover that could beat out Jose Cuervo eight days a week.
I make a great salary. The hospital I work for is awesome. The patients who smile and comment so sweetly about me make my day. I had adorable, dream patients this weekend, in fact. Those things keep me at the bedside, well that and my passion for helping others. But none of those things change the point that I’m beat today on my first day off. I guess that’s just how it is.