5 min read

12 lessons from my career as an RN

I'm not a particularly "career-minded" person. However, if I do something at all, I want to do it well. My role at work has changed a little over the years at my hospital, to including precepting new nurses and recently, helping out as a relief charge nurse on occasion. I love this, since it adds variety and keeps me learning new skills.

It's nurses week: the celebration of the under-celebrated, the men and women I work with that work long hours and give all their physical, mental, and emotional energy to treating mostly pleasant, but sometimes difficult patients.

My coworkers really become like family, since we often spend more waking hours with our coworkers than our families. And over and again, I see my team work to push through hard shifts, hard days, hard codes and situations, all to do our best to serve those than have a specific need for the skills we possess.

Some patients are particularly gracious, thanking us for our work and what we do. But every once in awhile, I get the comment, You only work three days each week? Geez, you have a cush job.

When I hear that, I usually don't have the energy to defend my choice of career, to prove that I'm working harder than they might realize. A lot of the worth and value of the nursing field is placed on how difficult the work it. And my goodness, it is hard work. But I don't want to brag about the long hours and the sore feet and the mental fatigue after a shift, because those things don't give this job value. I'm not proud when I eat my lunch at weird times, or hold my bladder again because a patient needs something. It's not boast-worthy when I have to make difficult clinical decisions, or keep an eye on a patients vitals or urine output, or notice for changes that could indicate someone's condition is headed south, or I come home to eat dinner at 9pm. It's not boast-worthy, but it is a realistic part of the game. Those are real aspects of my career choice.

But something being difficult isn't the defining characteristic that makes it good. Nursing is hard work. And also, nursing is good work. What I do feel proud of if when a patient holds my hand and says (aloud or not) thank you for seeing me; thank you for cracking jokes with me on my hardest day this decade, thank you for treating me not just like a patient but a person.

I think nurses can stand tall in their practice, knowing full well that it is hard work, YES, but more than that, it is work that has incredible value.

12 practical lessons I've learned from my career as an RN:

  1. Self care is essential. If I don't rest, feed myself with healthy food, get adequate sleep, drink enough water, make time for people and things I love, then life will feel hard, regardless of how the shifts at the hospital go.
  2. Coworkers are your team and team is your family. They will see you angry, and they'll probably see you cry, but they will also see you triumph and help you through hard shifts. And they will understand what you do in a 12-hour shift better than anyone else in your life.
  3. Even mild mannered people can learn to be assertive over the phone. I can be polite and concise and also accomplish what needs to be communicated in a timely manner. Those 75-100 phone calls per shift count for something, even if they are maddening.
  4. Find some kind of routine in your life outside of work, because you probably won't find all that much routine at work. Even though I know my schedule weeks in advance, my schedule is never the same. So I try to set aside little rituals, like our Tuesdays, which help set a better rhythm in my life.
  5. Be flexible. Every shift is different than the one before and the one after.
  6. Potlucks are always a good idea.
  7. Make days off count. Rest in ways that rest both body and my soul. Get outside, get exercise, spend time in prayer/reflection, spend time with people you love, take naps if you want. I wrote about some specific ways I do this in a post about better resting.
  8. Not all that is necessary is fun. We make post-op patients walk on their day of surgery and sit up in the chair. We don't make false promises about "getting their pain level to a zero the day after a major surgery." But we will encourage patients, and help them take one step at a time towards recovery. That recovery is often hard, but doable. They might only get jello and broth, but I'll joke with them that it's the gourmet clear liquids diet.
  9. Break down big, overwhelming tasks into smaller, measurable ones. I draw boxes on the patient care boards that we check off as my post-op patients walk at least 4 times a day. I keep my "paper brain" close by with small task lists I check off as I complete items. It does a person good to be reminded that they're making progress in the grand scheme of things.
  10. Set boundaries for yourself. With pushy patients. With days off. You can be firm and nice. Your job is not your life, and if it is, that's not sustainable, and likely a road to burnout.
  11. All people have worth. The patients who are sweet as can be. The family members who are frustrated and feel powerless to help their sick loved one. The patients who kick or spit or pull at their IVs, the ones who angrily call you, upset that their pain meds are "4 minutes late." They too are made in the image of God, they too have so much worth. They are the ones who might need dignity and compassion the most of all.
  12. Look up as you're leaving work. I've seen some of the most beautiful sunsets (& sunrises, when I worked nights) after the hardest shifts.

I could go on and on about hard my job is, but the truth is? I chose this career full-well knowing what I was getting into; knowing that nursing school was just the beginning.

And the truth is, for this season of life, it's where I can serve Him best. Serving anyone and everyone who gets rolled up to the floor. With a smile and a kind word. With coworkers I love and respect. In navy blue scrubs and day-old hair and maybe a little bit of mascara. If you have a nurse in your life, give him or her a hug this week. And encourage them to take care of themselves, too.

P.S. — I should note that I'm being specific to hospital nursing, but there are countless environments in which nurses work.

P.P.S. — I rarely write about my nursing career, since I have a full life outside of it, and also because there's a lot about it that I can't share. But here are a few posts from over the years that are about nursing:


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