To be honest, it took me a long time to find the courage to write this out. At my core, I love being a nurse. I am so passionate about the learning, the adrenaline from crazy cases, and most of all I love providing care for my patients and support for their families.
While I loved working in one of the most intense units one could likely work in, the lasting impacts it has had on me have begun to sink in. The trade offs of sacrifice I suppose one could say. Or what I would call the PTSD has sunk in.
Leaving the PICU six months ago wasn’t necessarily in the cards for me, however when a new more steady job opportunity popped up I knew for the sake of my own physical and mental well-being it was a much needed change.
In the moment and chaos of it all, I LOVED what I was doing. The adrenaline rush of seeing some of the most advanced life-sustaining measures was exhilarating and to be trusted to care for the countries most vulnerable patients was honourable. Next to being able to work with some of the most intelligent, passionate, and creative individuals I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with.
The shame and failure I felt choosing to leave full-time bedside nursing weighed heavily on me. Having to share my thoughts about leaving the unit I had started only 7 months prior felt almost embarrassing at times. On some level, the thought of feeling inadequate to want to continue to put up with ignoring my own health to contribute to carrying for others on an already high stress and high turnover unit. Quitting my dream job in pursuit of a job I was unsure about is probably one of the hardest things I have had to accept.
I was used to being a high functioning individual but the toll working in the ICU environment had slowly been wrecking havoc into me. The anxiety attacks I would have before work and after work trying to think about if I missed anything were eating away at me. Next to the grief I experienced when I would lose a patient whether on my shift or hearing about their death in bereavement e-mails became triggering. The grief parents would carry would transcend onto me and leave me feeling empty at not being able to help save their “baby”. Let long the high stress of planning even the most minute details of care in avoiding all emergencies in tasks such as daily line changes. The shift work and inconsistent sleep schedule having a hugely negative impact on my gut health and depression.
Even though my unit self-scheduled, I would spend most of my days off recovering from my prior shifts because of the high acuity of patients that had been coming through. This included routine exposure to traumas, suicides, acutely ill cancer patients, and septic patients requiring invasive treatments like ECMO.
Discussing my feelings and reflections in therapy designed for healthcare workers has been eye opening. In the sense, as healthcare worker death is often just seen as “part of the job”. As in, your patient could die on your shift and 2 hours later you are now admitting a new patient. Compared to families who are dealing with grief in the moment, healthcare workers are routinely exposed to this sense of loss and yet support and debrief is often few and far between.
It has taken me months to walk through my grief and to validate my sense of worth as a nurse. I know for a fact I am a damn good and proud nurse. But I have also come to realize that just because one area of nursing doesn’t allow me to flourish to my full potential it doesn’t take away from my passion. Despite being made to feel shamed for my decision from others at the time, I realize both my mental and physical health needs to be prioritized now.
While I didn’t intend to step away from the PICU when I did, I recognize now it was a blessing from beyond. Because having the chance to reflect on my journey in the PICU has shown me how much it was inevitably hurting me. As much as I miss the fast paced environment and the immense amounts of learning, I am starting to recognize and accept I can flourish in other areas that are more conducive to my mental health and slowly bringing me to where I want to be. I know I want to make wide-scale changes to our system and I have no regrets in exploring different areas to gain that first hand experience.
Leaving the PICU was not a set back and if anything gave me more reason to strive to enact changes to our healthcare system. Leaving the PICU gives me opportunity and energy to pursue other adventures, including returning to working for government and pursuing my interests in returning to graduate school. I am excited at the prospect of returning to school next year and working with other passionate individuals in their respective fields in pursuing an education in public health.