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Humbled by hurt
Jun 24, 2019, By: Lauren Cavanagh
a nurse looking after a patient in a hospital bed

Lessons Learned

  • The most difficult moments as a nurse are often the moments that teach us the most.
  • Nursing is a challenging but rewarding career if you find ways to effectively cope with the range of emotions inherent to the human experience.
  • Being vulnerable to feelings may be hard but also healthy.

There are days when I love my job because it fills me with joy. Days when I finish my shift on a high. You know the ones.

High because a patient learned they are in remission.

Or because a patient can go home on a pass for the weekend to see her dogs, take a warm bath, and sleep in her own bed with her husband.

When a patient’s newborn grandson visits for the first time.

When a favourite patient returns for her transplant, which means things have been going well.

Joy feels so good.

More often, though, my days on the job are filled with feelings that don’t resemble joy at all. Most days, they’re filled with painful, exhausting, and raw emotion. You know the ones.

Like that day I walked in and saw a friend’s name on the assignment board, listed as a patient.

The day an 18-year-old boy was told he’d miss his high school graduation because he needed to start chemo.

Or, when that same 18-year-old wasn’t able to donate sperm before his treatment started and was told he might never be able to have kids.

The day we sent a young father to the ICU while his wife stood by.

When I watched a father wear gloves to hold his daughter’s hand because he was worried about the chemo precautions. He didn’t understand why he shouldn’t touch her because she was sweating out the toxins from her treatment.

When a patient suddenly became unconscious and a code was called, and while the team was working on her, her daughter was in the hall screaming. She had left the room for just two minutes, and didn’t understand what could have happened while she was gone to get a drink of water.

When you see the look in a family member’s eyes after they’ve stayed countless sleepless nights at the patient’s bedside, on the creaky, uncomfortable cots, and all you see is exhaustion and fear.

The days that hurt, hurt a lot. But truthfully, they teach me more than the joyful days ever will. I am humbled by the hurt, and the lessons I’m learning are powerful:

We aren’t invincible. You or I could be in that hospital bed at any time. Sometimes, these diseases seem to come out of nowhere. The patient had a cough that didn’t go away. They felt a little tired for a few weeks. Something odd was spotted on routine blood work. They just felt “off.” And now, they’re a cancer patient. There is nothing stopping that from being you or me. Just because we understand it—just because we know the diseases, the drugs, and the statistics—doesn’t mean we won’t become part of the statistics. Nurses aren’t exempt from being human.

We can’t know all the answers. We never will. You might read all the journal articles you can (and trust me, I do!). You could have been an A+ student in nursing school, you might be able to understand every EKG strip you see, and interpret every blood value, but you can’t know it all. Especially in this line of work. After nine months on the same unit, I’m just scratching the surface of hematology/oncology. It would take a lifetime and beyond to learn everything I’d want to learn. Even if you do, somehow, know all the technical answers, how can you ever answer a patient who’s asking, “Why me?” Which leads me to the next lesson…

Life isn’t fair. If you thought it might be, you’re in for a rude awakening. It doesn’t matter how nice you are, whether you recycle, run 5 km every day, just got married, volunteer at an animal shelter, or have dedicated your entire life to bettering the world around you. It doesn’t matter if you’re a new mom, a grandparent, a sister or a brother, if you’re 12 or 22 or 102. It doesn’t matter if you’ve already had cancer and kicked its ass. In fact, you might even have cancer now because of the treatment from the previous cancer. Can you imagine anything less fair? How do you soothe the hurt that comes from life’s simply being unfair?

So when we realize we aren’t invincible, we don’t have all the answers, and that life isn’t fair, then what do we do? When we have shift after shift that just hurts, then what?

As humans, I think we should let it hurt. We are just humans, after all. I’m learning that allowing myself to feel all this pain is extraordinary. It isn’t pleasant, of course. But it is profound. It makes me wonder—what happens when you stifle all that hurt? Does it contribute to nursing burnout? Does it make us cranky at home? Do we take it out on our co-workers? It wouldn’t surprise me if it contributed to all those things.

All that emotion has to come out somewhere. So, as a human, I let it sit. I feel it. I acknowledge it. And then, as a nurse, I try to let it flood my practice. For me, that looks like empathy, humility, and the simplest gestures of kindness.

I’ve cried with patients. I’ve held hands a few minutes longer when there were other things that also needed my attention. I’ve brought in a homemade lemon loaf for the patient made of skin and bones who says he finally has an appetite. I’ve been open with patients when I don’t have the answers. I know these things don’t push away the pain, but when you let yourself feel the hurt, I think it allows you to better understand what can make it all hurt just a little less.

And in the end, as nurses, isn’t that why we’re here?

Lauren Cavanagh started her career as a Registered Nurse in 2017. She spent her first year working on an inpatient hematology and medical oncology unit, and has recently transitioned into working in sexual health.