“We cannot not nurse”: Why nurses are never really off duty


I remember sitting in a closely crowded classroom five years ago, eagerly hanging on to the words of a nursing instructor who explained to us a peculiar phenomenon.

“When I go out in public,” she said, “I assess everyone.”

Ankles. Veins. Skin.

Sights. Sounds. Smells.

She made it clear to a classroom full of greener-than-grass wanna-be graduates that one day, without any warning, we would experience the same thing. She was right.

Shutterstock |KPG Payless2

The weirdest thing about being a nurse is that it’s nearly impossible to disconnect the profession from the person. This is distinctly different from leaving your day at the hospital, so to speak. It’s not that we carry the burdens of a bad day with us, nor do we feel compelled to cling to the epic saves. We simply cannot not nurse, and this reality presents itself in a variety of situations.

Since becoming a nurse, I’ve helped with orthopedic injuries secondary to playful roughhousing at barbecues, despite not having a drop of experience with discs, joints or bones. I’ve assessed the mid-sternal incision of a pharmacy cashier while she rang up my shampoo and diet cola: I happened to be in scrubs and she was pleased by how well she was healing, much to the dismay of the long line forming behind me.

I’ve spent hours with a collapsed woman having active chest pain en route to my honeymoon in Rome, lying next to her on the floor of an airplane for hours until her symptoms resolved. When the only doctor on the plane admitted to having been out of practice for decades and prescribed nothing more than a cold washcloth and some ginger ale, the pilot asked me whether to divert the packed flight. Just an off-the-clock nurse who simply wanted to enjoy a glass of red wine and an in-flight movie. Just an off-the-clock nurse who monitored a woman’s vital signs. Just an off-the-clock nurse who, understanding the critical connection between time and muscle, stabilized a woman who traveled alone until she could be transported to an Italian hospital.

Shopping malls. Grocery stores. On the treadmill at the gym. Nurses walk into a room and notice subtle details. Nurses know when someone or something just doesn’t look right. Nurses understand that the silly phone calls and crazy questions from loved ones about a cough or a rash or what the doctor said comes from a place of respect for our knowledge and insight. And if we don’t know something, nurses are pretty damn good at finding an answer anyway.

In a world filled with wallflowers, so many of us in nursing feel compelled to spring forward where others shy away. With some common sense and a pair of gloves, we’ve done it all, seen it all, touched it all and helped in so many arenas. From hangovers to heart troubles, we’re never off the clock—and if we happen to be nearby during an emergency, we’re primed and ready for the moment you need us.

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