I thought I’d be a PICU nurse forever…

I started my career as a PICU secretary, eventually I became a CNA and stayed in the unit. Those 2 years were the most inspiring time in my nursing career. The nurses in the department coached me, encouraged me, and taught me everything I would ever need to be a solid PICU nurse. If I hadn’t been in that UNIT with those NURSES I’m not sure I would have survived nurses school.

Pink and healthy

The compassion I witnessed from this group of nurses was an incredible sight. They not only were able to make a family feel cared for but they also made them feel safe by being absolute experts in critical care. I wanted to emulate everything they did. I wanted to make every child feel loved but also know every detail of complex congenital heart disease. It was a huge undertaking to become one of them.

As soon as I was hired as a PICU nurse, I immediately started studying for the CCRN (critical care registered nurse) exam. I was lucky enough to sign up for the exam at the same time as one of the more seasoned nurses. She needed my level of commitment to stay focused and I needed her experience to teach me. A soon as I hit the minimum 1,750 hours I took the exam and passed. I was officially a certified ICU nurse. I loved everything about my job and assumed I would work there forever. The crazy thing about ICU nursing is you have the highest of highs and the lowest of lows yet you somehow come out on the other side stronger. We would witness miracle recoveries and tragic deaths all within a 12-hour shift.

After 4 years I was one of the more “senior” nurses. This was not due to my age but more because of the high turnover rate. I decided I was going to work towards receiving the highest rating for my annual evaluation. The coveted “commendable rating.” I was very clear to my charge nurses that I was doing everything I could that would put me in the running. I picked up extra shifts, stayed late, hung around new grads to make sure they were staying afloat, and anything I thought could help the unit.

I quit during my annual evaluation

The month before my evaluation I had experienced 5 deaths. These were patients that we knew had little chance of recovery but each death stung a little deeper. I was wounded when I went into my evaluation. During our meeting, I learned that I would not be getting commendable but I actually “needed improvement in my attitude.” I cracked, I started crying and I quit. I offered to finish out my schedule but I announced that I couldn’t work in a unit where I wasn’t thought of as an outstanding nurse. I was crushed. My 110% wasn’t enough, so I left.

I still miss the friendships of the unit, I miss my patients and their parents. I miss the critical thinking and using my gut to identify what could go wrong at a moments notice.

ICU work was ruining my body

What I don’t miss is wearing a bite block at night to stop me from grinding my teeth down to nubs from the stress. I don’t miss waking up in a panic at 2 am wondering if I returned the PCA key. I don’t miss the plantar fasciitis or the lower back pain.

I transferred to the emergency department which was a surprisingly calm environment compared to my days in the PICU. I stopped grinding my teeth, my pain went away and I started sleeping through the night. Looking back, I can’t believe how poorly I treated myself during my PICU time. I would chug water when I got home realizing I hadn’t peed or drank anything during my shift. I survived out of a candy drawer.

What’s your sweet spot?

It’s been 11 years since I left the unit and there is one sole survivor from when I started. I asked her how she’s been able to maintain her sanity and her response is EXACTLY what I want everyone to have the option to do. She said, “I can do anything 2 days a week.” She’s been part-time for the last 13 years and still loves what she does. She’s found her “nursing sweet spot.” Every patient that she gets not only get her extraordinary care but also her brilliance from being a PICU nurse for 20 years.

You migh not want to be a night nurse in 5 years. You might not want to work in the hospital in 10 years. You might want Christmas off EVERY year. All of these decisions have the potential for a pay cut. Are you ready???

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