It had been a rotten, rotten, rotten nursing shift. Without getting into details that we’re just not supposed to get into, let’s just say that one of our favorite patients, a tiny little girl, born too early and with too many cards stacked against her, didn’t make it through the shift.
We took it hard. It had been touch and go from day one with her, but we’d hoped for more ‘touch’ and less ‘go’. When we lost her, it wasn’t unexpected. But no matter how long you do this job, you’re never really ready for a bad outcome.
Everyone was doing the best they could to just hold on through the rest of the shift so we could go home, away from the hospital, away from everything that reminded us of that precious little one and her heartbroken parents. It was one of those days where you know, to the minute, how much time you have before your shift is over.
And then Debbie, who is just about the most serious, uptight nurse you ever met, tripped over a chair in the nursing station. Down she went, a gigantic crash, and she landed flat on her face. We all rushed over to help her up, and what really struck me was what she said in that minute.
“Well, the day can only get better from here.” She said it with such ferocity, such determination, such iron will, that you knew she was only a moment away from losing it completely. Then she looked at us and asked, “What I really want to know is what score the Russian judge gave me.”
We burst out laughing, and once we started, we couldn’t stop. We laughed and laughed at least until the next alarm went off and realized that we all had to go back to work. But do you know what? I didn’t once worry about how much longer it would be until my nursing shift was done. We all had work to do, but at least that day, I felt like we were all in it together. Maybe we weren’t able to cry together, but we could laugh together, share nursing humor amongst ourselves and that’s nearly as good.
Laughter in High Stress Situations
Nursing is a stressful profession. Researchers have ranked the stress levels that nurses experience as being similar to the stress experienced by emergency response personnel, soldiers in the field, and law enforcement. High adrenaline situations, such as the intense, last-ditch efforts to save a child, have a clear emotional impact on everyone involved.
In an ideal world, we would all have the time and ability to retreat from these intense situations, process what we’ve experienced, regroup and then return to the workplace prepared to tackle the world once again. Unfortunately, we don’t live in an ideal world, and there’s no resting until the shift is over.
That’s where laughter comes in. Laughter can be used to dispel tension and accumulated emotion in a socially acceptable way. It’s a safety valve, allowing us to reduce the internal pressure we feel when we’re not able to express ourselves completely. We can’t rage against how unfair it is that a small child dies while we’re on a unit full of lots of other small children, accompanied by parents desperately praying that they won’t have to face the same horror they’ve just witnessed second hand.
But we can laugh. Make no mistake. Laughter won’t replace our need to process what happens during a rough shift, to grieve for our patients and their loved ones, to feel the frustration and anger. We still need to do all of those things. Laughter buys us the time we need to be able to do so safely and appropriately.
You don’t have to fall flat on your face, of course, but finding something laughable during a tense time and a stressful nursing shift is one of the best things you can do for yourself and your fellow nurses.