Guest Post: Leaving the Bedside

Guest Post: Leaving the Bedside


“You want me to help you turn a patient? Please don’t make me help you. I am so tired of touching strangers.”

MentorI didn’t dare voice this feeling when one of my co-workers approached me—the charge nurse—to help with a simple but potentially life saving task.  The second after this thought went through my head I was devastated. This was beyond burn out. This was the end of an almost thirty year career at the bedside.  But my fatigue wasn’t just with the patients, it was with the endless worries about patient safety/perception of care;  the ever widening gulf between futile measures and what is best for the patient; management’s obsession with the Next! New! Shiny! Theory!  It wasn’t that I didn’t care for my patients. It’s that I cared too much and everything felt so broken around me. It didn’t help my work environment was perhaps the most toxic I’ve been exposed to in my long career.  I felt completely discounted by the driving forces in nursing leadership: my decades of experience were meaningless without a BSN.

It was time. Time to go.

I was “that” nurse. The nurse I never wanted to become. You know the nurse. Let’s call her Barb.

She was once a great nurse: never missed an IV, always had a ready answer for a pathophys question; could recite the correct dosage of any given medication even if she were aroused from a deep sleep.  But over time Barb losses her mojo: she sleep walks through her care. She pastes on a therapeutic smile in the room but it is promptly replaced by a grimace and growl at the nurse’s station. And nothing is ever good enough. No matter how hard you work with her,

it’s not enough. Somehow you’ve failed Barb . . .

I’ve worked with plenty of Barbs and it was my biggest fear—since 1981—that I would be her.

Luckily for my patients and coworkers, I only had hours rather than whole shifts where I felt and acted like Barb.

But it was still hard to admit and face the nurse I was becoming. I had an equally difficult time admitting it was time to leave the bedside.  It felt like  failure. I was trained to work at the bedside and my calling was to care for patients directly in an acute care setting.  To walk away from the bedside was walking away from my calling.  I was discounting the Universe’s gifts given freely to me if I stepped away from the bedside.  I spent sleepless nights last winter and a few tearful days battling a hopelessness that came dangerously close to a major depressive episode.   I had walked away from the NICU years before because caring for neonates had become overwhelming. If I couldn’t take care of adults, who could I care for?  Was I ready to completely walk away from nursing?

Like most veteran nurses, I had about a billion moments when I threatened to burn my license or just work at Wendy’s. “Want fries with that?” is a favorite tagline I use when things are bordering on disaster.  And I was usually over it by the time my next shift rolled around.   But this time, it was real. If the thought of touching a stranger repelled me it was time to move on. What I couldn’t get around was the emptiness I felt: how could I leave behind a career that allowed me to advocate, troubleshoot, assess and educate people?   The heart of nursing. These things are what make being a nurse different from being a med tech or even a doctor.  Do they necessarily need to be performed directly in the patient’s room in a facility? No.

I couldn’t move away from my own feelings of grief and loss to see this. I needed help and sometimes we have to hire people to help us.  But it was more than hiring a career coach.* I trusted my career and my calling to her. It was a profound investment. And I believe it will pay off twenty fold over the course of the rest of my career. Shari (my career coach) taught me to trust my intuition.

I would have never allowed myself to see the next place or the best place for my gifts was case management.  I think I hesitated to wish for this at first because many of the case managers I had been exposed to over the years were an assortment of Barb’s: brittle and angry. Or worse, they were dangerous at the bedside so they were parked behind a desk where they could do the least harm.  Like most of my preconceived notions, this one was just as wrong.  I love being wrong. Because many of the case managers I’ve worked with are great nurses, they just aren’t posed at the beside with medications and dressings.  Turning my own notions of this role on its ear helped me see what a perfect match my gifts and strengths are.  Shari, my coach, also helped me realize and tease out all the opportunities in healthcare for case management.

In my opinion, when I became a nurse, nursing was largely about keeping patients safe in facilities. Now it’s keeping them safely out of facilities.  I want to be a part of that. I’ve worked in hospitals for years and despite best practices and perfect intentions, facilities can be dangerous. I want to help people stay home as long and as healthfully as possible.

When I realized this, my nurse’s heart felt a lightness and passion it hadn’t felt in years.  My professional mission statement had been: “Allow me to guide and care for you through dramatic and complex illness.”    My new mission looks more like: “I will guide you towards the highest level of wellness you can achieve.”  Just typing that statement makes me a little emotional, so I know it must be true.

This is my end-of-shift report.   I’m just beginning a new phase in my career and I feel like a twenty-two year old new grad: a little scared, a little unsure, but passionate about taking care of people.

I’m also relieved I will never be a Barb.

*Big thanks to Gypsy Nurse for introducing me to my job coach. if you are interested in the process I underwent with Shari Sambursky please email me at edgyjunecleaver at gmail dot com. I will be happy to share with you my experience.

Edited by TheGypsyNurse: You can also reach out to Shari Sambursky via her website Career Esteem.

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  1. I’m crying right now as I wright this response. Everything you wrote is exactly how I feel except for a little ‘worse’ because my burnout has occurred so early in my career. I’ve only been a nurse for 7 years and I feel so cynical, angry, pressured, anxious, and entrapped in something that was suppose to be a career of love, and gentle compassion. I’ve worked in several hospital settings hoping that my feelings of hopelessness would dissipate as soon as I found a job with the ‘right fit’. But 4 environments and 3 specialties later I quickly succumb to burn out, despite having a positive attitude at the start and being successful in each move I’ve made. Like I get awards and many positive patient responses with each new job I’ve taken on. My last move has been less than 1 year ago and I’m already starting to be angry with people asking for help with their patients, for patient’s asking me for help, and with the stupid expectations placed on me by management. I feel so lost and no one in my family, nor my friends understand. They continue to tell me I have a great job, with great pay and I need to get over it. My nursing friends tell me that ‘maybe nursing isn’t my calling’. The latter sentiment hurts to my core. I use to love people so much and when I think of my future I still see myself helping others in some capacity. Thank you for your wonderfully written experience.

    • I’ve experienced many of these same feelings. Have you considered travel nursing? The one thing that I like most about traveling is that when I start to feel that burnout…it’s nearly time to move on to another facility or to take some time off. I find that I’m a much better bedside nurse, more compassionate and caring since I’ve been traveling. I’m taking better care of me and therefore, I’m emotionally able to take better care of my patients. Wishing you the best and remember…you’re never alone.

      • Thank you. Yes, I do enjoy travel nursing the most. I’m a travel ER nurse. Maybe it is just that I’ve been at this particular assignment for far to long (8 months so far). I’ve been renewed 4 times. My husband is a brick mason (I’ve only been married a year) and I have not yet figured out how to manage home time with travel time. Plus I’m wanting to have children soon. I love the increased freedom as a traveler nurse and the idea of being an employee at one hospital is a bit horrifying now that I’ve traveled. I just don’t know what is next for me and I think it is making me anxious and agitated because of the lack of a plan. But I’ve been poking around at this website and it seems like a really nice resource for nurse travelers that I did not know about. Thanks again!

    • This is heartbreaking, I hate such a young nurse is so completely burned out and used up. I hope you can find another role where you can use your obvious gift. If the comment: “nursing isn’t your calling” hurts you to the core, chances are it is your calling but you haven’t found your niche. Best of luck to you.