Dealing With Trauma as a Nurse

No one ever talks about the trauma nurses experience. At least where I used to work. I recently left a job after three years in the trauma ICU, and I’m not going to lie; I feel a ton of relief.

I’ll never forget my first big trauma; it was controlled chaos, like being in a battle, listening to the provider’s commands, and carrying out the tasks diligently. Everyone working together like a well-oiled machine. After over an hour of resuscitation, despite all of our best efforts, the patient died. Within minutes we cleaned up the patient the best that we could, and our nurse manager softly shuffled the family back to see the patient. I think out of sheer fear of witnessing the pain, I put my head down and walked out of the room with the other nurses to give the family time and space. I quickly realized that everyone had dispersed, and no one was talking about what just happened. As if this is a normal thing to witness and experience as a human being. As if no one is emotionally affected by seeing a harsh death.

Over time, I found that even when no one talked about it out loud, people would admit their emotional pain if I brought it up privately. I’ve had countless coworkers tell me (privately) that they started to speak to a therapist about what they had seen since working on the unit. No one wants to admit that it IS not easy. We DO need space to process the trauma we see and experience daily. It is NOT normal. There needs to be space for grieving. 

There are people I worked with that seemed to “handle” these experiences better than others. I always wondered, do they get used to it? Does it not affect them as deeply? Is it true that I can’t handle it? Do I belong in the ICU? Maybe I’m just not an “ICU cowboy” looking for the next big trauma. You begin to question everything, and it can feel incredibly lonely. 

Over time, I began to feel more confident in my ability to care for a big trauma. I learned to turn into a machine and be present for the patient and block out anything unnecessary. BUT, I can also admit that when the trauma pager went off, I could feel my heart beating in my ears—scared of what I might have to see. Scared of what I might deal with after the fact, even things that I didn’t realize would affect me at the moment—fear of what else could permanently traumatize me or have dreams about for weeks.

There’s a reason there’s so much turnover of nurses in the ICU setting. You get burnt out emotionally and physically over time, and after three years in the ICU, I can confidently say that it was time for me to go. I recently read a post by a nurse where she talked about the feeling of guilt nurses get leaving a unit as if we owe ourselves to that unit. We stay because we feel like we have to continue to bear the exhaustion, getting yelled at by patients and their families, unsafe staff ratios, kicked and punched, and all of that with no recognition or acknowledgment from management. 

It was extremely important for me to leave; for myself and my family. Now I can be present in the way I want to be and not be mentally bogged down. It didn’t feel worth it anymore. The moment I realized I didn’t NEED that job and that leaving didn’t mean I failed as a nurse, I left. That’s the beauty of nursing, and you can acquire skills from heart failure to trauma to insurance claims and still be a nurse. You can still be valuable and necessary. 

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