Remembering the Why
If we are fortunate, we have someone in our life who "keeps it real" for us. This is a person who is open, honest and direct, and who tells us what we need to hear, not just what they think we want to hear. In my life, the person who extends herself in this way is my daughter Emily, a PICU nurse.
A couple of nights ago, my phone rang and Emily's name popped up on the screen. I had an immediate sense of concern because I knew she was working the night shift and unless something was terribly wrong, would not call while she was at work. I answered with "Are you okay?" and she responded "No, it's a horrible night at work and I just need to talk for two minutes so I can return to it."
I am Emily's "safe place" just as my own mom is my "safe place." The safe place is where you can go, say whatever you need to say without fear of judgment or retribution, know the person will quietly store it away in the vault of their heart, and usually offer words of solace, comfort or meaning. It's understandable that the "keep it real" person is so inextricably linked with the "safe place" person. The exchange of trust and vulnerability provides a rich, symbiotic environment for the two to co-exist.
As Emily shared her thoughts and spoke about her feelings related to what she was experiencing on a particularly emotionally brutal evening at work, I couldn't help thinking, "Why do we choose this profession? Why are we nurses?"
Emily had said, "I don't know if I can keep doing this... ." I wondered how and from where bedside nurses draw the strength, courage and conviction to carry on in these incredibly challenging situations, day after day, month after month, and year after year. It is a heroic venture, to say the least.
So why be a nurse? It certainly is not easy. It is often painfully difficult work under extreme pressure. Imagine the job criteria of a nurse if it were re-written:
- Provides care for patients while their loved ones stand by, observe and frequently question every decision you make and action you take.
- Appropriately functions while remaining aware that mistakes made can result in another person's death or permanent injury.
- Appropriately processes feelings and emotions while witnessing and supporting another person at their most raw, desperate and vulnerable point in life and during heartbreaking decisions and situations, and continues to provide safe care even if emotionally exhausted.
- Goes with the flow regardless of what the flow brings with it, including broken equipment, missing medications or supplies, incivility, tight staffing, incessant documentation requirements and new technology.
- Maintains the dignity of the patient during moments of extreme medical intimacies.
- May be unexpectedly or unknowingly exposed to others' bodily fluids and harmful pathogens.
- Can unexpectedly cover for colleagues who are ill, absent, off the unit or unable to leave their duties, while continuing to safely carry out assigned duties.
- Smiles, is polite and respectful, and offers compassion and empathy to everyone regardless of any reciprocation.
- Staves off hunger or bathroom requirements whenever necessary.
- Remains the stationary, primary caregiver for a patient at the bedside, even if colleagues in different roles are able to move in and out of the room or on and off of the unit.
- Does whatever it takes, within the legal bounds of licensure and policy, to help people in need.
- Continuously educates some friends and family members, both one's own and that of the patient's, who wonder why nursing, rather than medicine, is the chosen profession.
Seriously? Why do this? And that is exactly the question – why do this? Every nurse has to reacquaint himself and herself with the answer to this question of Why, because if not, the role is likely unsustainable. It's just too difficult. Our Why is the only way to continuously re-inspire and re-energize ourselves; finding it and feeling it is the path forward (1). I'm not talking about what you do or how you do it, but rather why you do it. The Why cuts through cynicism, exhaustion and hopelessness and infuses immediate meaning, sanity and value to our work.
When Emily said "I don't know if I can keep doing this..." and I heard the anguish in her voice, I asked "Why do you do it?" She silently reflected and her personal Why flooded through her mind in response to my question. Emily was moved to the necessary place where she was able to pull from within herself to get her through the shift. But Emily, as all nurses, wants more than just to get through the shift. There is a much deeper reason why nurses do what they do. This reason is the North Star of our profession, our purpose and raison d'etre, our reason for existence. In the relationship between "keeping it real" and being a "safe place", Emily and I both remembered, and honored, our Why. And we both continue to think about it every day, and every day as nurses, we are inspired.
(1) Sinek, S. (2009). Start with Why. Penguin Group, New York, NY.
This page was last updated: April 1, 2014