1. Harris, Katherine Suzanne BSN, RN


How lessons from nursing have infused my life.


Article Content

During my first few years as a maternity nurse, work felt like a universe separate from "real" life with my husband and dog. Suddenly, I was spending my days in a windowless corporate medical environment of terse medical lingo and a frenetic pace. Home seemed a faraway memory of silence and napping in the sun with my dog. As the years go by, however, I find that my work as a nurse isn't as separate from my home life as I had thought; it has embedded itself into who I am and how I see the world. What I bring home from work is not just stress; valuable lessons that improve life outside the hospital are also part of the package.


I've learned that I can be very calm, or at least appear to be, in many frightening situations. As a labor nurse, I'm accustomed to handling terrified people who are in excruciating pain. I find myself moving slowly and steadily, talking quietly, and touching reassuringly. When my two-year-old daughter fell out of her crib, I calmly picked her up off the floor and held her close as she screamed. "Everything is okay. That was scary, but you're okay," I cooed as the blood from her horribly skewed front tooth ran down her chin. My husband bounced around the room, sputtering and panicking. "She'll be fine," I said. "Go downstairs and call the dentist." He was glad to have something to do. I patted her back rhythmically-worrying that the tooth would need to be pulled, which it did. As she fell asleep in my arms, I monitored the bleeding from her gum and watched for signs of concussion. My seven years as a nurse had taught me the focus needed to stay calm, assess her injury, take action, and reassure her.


I've also learned that kindness works wonders. It doesn't cure everything, but I am amazed by how often it can change a tone that's starting to sour. Sometimes I fake that, too. At work, for example, a grandmother was furious with her daughter for not wanting her in the delivery room. I paused to remind myself not to take the grandmother's rudeness personally, put my hand on her arm, and said, "I know it must be so hard to wait outside the room, but you should be so proud-she's doing great in there." At work, it's my job to take care of my patients, not my ego. But being kind under pressure at home can be more of a challenge.


The other day my husband and I were arguing about who sleeps more. We were both very tired.


"You always seem to be sleeping soundly when I get home from work at midnight," I said.


"Yeah, but I don't really fall asleep until you get home," he replied.


I was feeling misunderstood and sleep deprived, but just before I rolled my eyes, I said, "Fine, you're right. I sleep more than you. That's why I'm so well balanced and never pick a fight." He caught my smile and we laughed about our absurd argument.


Later, I realized that digging up graciousness in difficult situations is what nurses do all the time.


I've also learned that the only way to survive my job is to decompress with nursing colleagues. In nursing school, I carpooled to clinical sites with other students and we shared stories: tragic, embarrassing, joyous. It helped us through the trials of school, through seeing people die or be told they would never walk again-or even that their baby was healthy and beautiful. It's too much to take in alone, but with support it can be bearable. When one of my patients has an emergency cesarean section or a teenager in labor pain is swearing at me, I know I will feel a moment of mutual understanding when I cross paths with a fellow nurse. We understand the mix of love, obligation, humor, responsibility, and exhaustion at that moment and every time we change into our scrubs.


I've learned to reach out for support and to find a place to tell my story. My mothers' group guides me through the sacred and crazy world of mothering. My writing group helps me focus on writing. Reaching out and sharing my story gets me through my shift, and it also helps me create a connected and whole life.