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an open letter to America from an ER nurse

Dear America,

It’s time for us to be honest.

We love what we do, most days. We love your stories, how you brought your pet squirrel, now dead, into our rooms to see if we could test its brain for rabies. We love hearing your trampoline and alcohol story. Or how you tried to be “hip” in front of your teenage son and face-planted off that longboard. Or how you set down the grease spotted McDonald’s bag before climbing on the gurney with belly pain. Or how you took the time to pack two full suitcases before calling 911 because you plan on staying a few days. Case closed. Not an emergency if you have time to pack.

These are the fun times. But there are other times.

We have run down hallways pushing your loved one toward the cardiac cath lab, telling them to keep their eyes open, to keep talking to us, stay with us, don’t go, we’re getting you the help you need.

We have loosened tourniquets around your arms and when the blood sprayed, we put our hands in front of it so you didn’t feel the warmth of your own humanity against your chest.

We have ran with your nearly faceless daughter in our arms to the nearest room when a clay pigeon thrower automatically fired one into her face.

We don’t say these things to make us seem great. We say these things because these situations are the ones that make a difference in the scope of this one precious life. And in these situations, we are grateful, to the very core of our being, that we get to do what we do. We are committed to you. With empathy and compassion, we do our job and when we go home, sometimes we pull over on our drive because the tears just keep falling and we have lain awake in bed at night and prayed for your children, knowing you left them on this earth when a drunk driver killed you.

We hold these things all within us.

You might say we are brave for doing what we do. That’s not true. We were trained to run toward disaster when others run away.

That’s not what bravery is.

Bravery is when we decide to go on living to the fullest after witnessing so many horrific things. Bravery is getting on a motorcycle and blocking out the time brain matter fell on our shoe. Bravery is sticking up for the lady with the stammering talk at the party because we can see the way her hands tremble when she reaches for the cake. Bravery is deciding to love people so fiercely while knowing we are all just one phone call away from our knees.

But we need to talk about something that’s causing our bravery to falter, dear America.

We need to talk about the increasing violence we are facing. How according to a recent study, nearly 55% of ER nurses reported being verbally or physically abused in the last week. The last week. Think about that. So that nurse who comes into your room and smiles and is kind? Remember to thank them. They likely were just yelled at moments before. And it takes an incredible amount of strength to care for people who so often don’t care in return.

In fact, violence happens so frequently that studies show nurses new to the ER are starting to consider it a normal part of their job.

That’s just downright horrible, America. Should violence ever be normalized?

We need to talk about the opioid crisis and how we are taking the brunt of your angry rage but you know what? You said too many people were dying in the streets due to opioid addiction and then you scream and swear at us when you’ve had enough. We need to talk about the times you’ve said, “Get the **** outta my room” when something doesn’t quite go like you wanted it to.

We need to discuss the many times you complain about the wait. I can honestly, deeply say, we are tired of the wait too. If we could get you and your complaints out the front door faster, we would. So often, just after you arrived in your bed, a lady unconscious from a car wreck comes through the ambulance bay or the gentleman mowing his lawn down the street just falls over dead. These will always take top priority. If we aren’t all surrounding your bed, it means you’re one of the lucky ones who will live to see tomorrow.

But most of all, we need to discuss why so many of us are walking away.

What then, America, when we aren’t there?

Because we’re leaving. In droves, we are walking away. In fact, it is estimated that one out of every five nurses will quit within two years of becoming a nurse. Other nurses are advancing their careers. Not because they wanted to but because they’re tired of being treated poorly. And the baby boomer nurses who make up a large majority of the workforce? They’re ready to retire. All that said, the US Bureau of Labor Statistics project that by 2022, there will be more registered nurses needed than any other workforce. Some politicians are finally acknowledging this as a national crisis.

It pains me to know that so many talented, smart, compassionate people are quitting. It pains me to know that when my fabled day comes and I need critical care, all that might be left are the new ones who aren’t yet, tired. New nurses with perfect intentions and brilliantly smart but lacking that thing called experience.

So here’s my plea to you, today. From one emergency room nurse to you, the soul and body of America, just… be kind. We’re tired. We want to love you. If we can ease even a little of life’s hurts, we will do it gladly. We aren’t asking for a miracle. And we know we see you only on your bad days. But just because it’s a bad day, doesn’t give you the right to be rude, or worse, violent.

Lights are going out across America as nurses aren’t available to keep the hospitals going. It’s likely your small town hospital will be shutting down yet another section of the hospital in the near future. Night is coming, America.

And we might not be there.

Sincerely,

An Emergency Room Nurse

P.S. This week is National Emergency Nurses’ Week. If you know one, remember to thank them. It just might keep the lights on in America a little longer.

P.P.S. The views expressed are my own and do not reflect on my employer in any manner.

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References:

Ashton, R., Morris, L., & Smith, I. (2018) A qualitative meta-synthesis of emergency department staff experiences of violence and aggression. DOI: 10.1016/j.ienj.2017.12.004

Copeland, D., & Henry, M. (2017) Workplace violence and perceptions of safety among emergency department staff members: Experiences, expectations, tolerance, reporting and recommendations. DOI: 10.1097/JTN.0000000000000269

Haddad, L., & Toney-Butler, T. (2018) NCBI: Nursing shortage. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK493175/

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