If there is anything that 2020 has proven, it’s that anything can happen―to anyone, at any given time. We are halfway through 2020, the International Year of the Nurse and the Midwife, and here are some lessons that I, as a nurse on the frontlines, have learned that nursing school could never prepare me for.
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit the United States, I felt like I was at possibly one of my most vulnerable and fragile states. As a nurse in the OR at a trauma center, there was a heavy sense of fear and anxiety that came with every shift. I realized I was scared for the safety of the general public more than my own.
I sometimes romanticized the idea of a nurse in my head, and that has occasionally led me to neglect myself in order to put others first. I was ignoring everything I was feeling; I was not giving myself permission to have human tendencies. I kept trying to convince myself that I shouldn’t feel the way I do because I know that plenty of people have it worse than I do. I was feeling something parallel to “survivor’s guilt,” because I still had a job while others didn’t. Compassion and caring is a two-way street; I (we) extend it so easily to my (our) patients and our community but easily forget to do the same for myself (ourselves). I thought that because I was a nurse, I should be able to “nurse” myself and my mental space. As a nurse, I felt like I should know what to do and how to manage stress.
Before quarantine, I normally turned to mani-pedis, brunch, and full-blown spa days when I needed to make time for myself. But being home without any of that available to me, I had to find other ways to take care of myself. I binged shows, tried lessons, and attended virtual events, but those were temporary band-aids. I started home projects (only because I can navigate my toolbox better than my kitchen). I tried meditating, yoga, bubble baths with candles, and different at-home workout routines. While these were comforting, it doesn’t address the root of my distress. I tried to treat myself as I would my patients, but eventually realized I could not go through the motions on my own. I sought help and support, both personally and professionally. I relied on my support system and my therapist to guide me through the overflowing baggage of emotions that was bursting at the seams. I have learned that being strong also means being able to acknowledge my limits and set my boundaries accordingly.
And while I struggled with feeling vulnerable, I realized it was not healthy to compartmentalize my emotions the way I did. I needed a healthy outlet, so I wrote. I poured my thoughts and feelings onto a blank page and let them manifest as poetry. Poetry helped me turn things I felt strongly about into something manageable. Seeing the words on a page made it somewhat tangible, allowing me to process them easier. Poetry is my form of expression because of its non-linear and abstract thought. For me, there is “meaning,” and then there is “meaningful” when it comes to writing poetry.
It’s a different kind of convent we’ve chosen
It’s almost like we leave our old lives behind
Embark on this journey
The person who heard your words even when you don’t speak
The one who sits at your bedside, strong and steadfast, when you’re too weak
The light when you feel helpless and alone
The calm that lifts and soothes your restless soul
The confessional where you set your secrets free
The sanctuary where no one serves as your judge or jury
The advocate that fights for you when you can’t
The strength to uplift you when you need a hand
We give without taking
We care without hesitating
We put ourselves through rigorous discipline and training
To constantly be better
To give you a better chance for fighting
We put your needs before our own
But make no mistake
These angel-like qualities do not make us saints
Nor do they make us warriors
We don’t need to make deals with the devil to know that there are demons
We fought to get to where we are
So we could fight for you
We earned the privilege to be there for you
To be there for each other
To see through one’s beginning
And carry dignity and respect through one’s end
We have shed tears
To do right by you
We have earned the privilege to be in this position that we call
I initially hesitated with sharing my poem, because I felt this disconnect between what it took for me to get to where I am as a nurse, but also I struggled to with explain to people that we (as nurses) are human, too. Yes, we rise, and we fight, and even in our weakest moments, we somehow manage to summon more strength to keep going. We do this because we realize the work that we do on a regular basis has somehow been magnified. We adapt, we adjust, and we learn to cope along the way. We worked hard to earn the title “nurse.”
Renee Lazaro, MSN, RN, CNOR, PHN, is an operating room nurse at a hospital in Los Angeles, California, USA. She is a member of Sigma's Gamma Tau at-Large Chapter at University of California in Los Angeles, California, USA.