Night Shift is a Harsh Mistress

Where the hell do I even begin to talk about my twisted love affair with nighttime? I could start by talking about high school and how I started skimping on sleep to study AND work a job. I could talk about my early 20s and my first overnight shifts doing home healthcare. But I’d rather just jump to telling you about what it’s been like to work night shift in a huge hospital for the last 8 years (it’ll be 9 in August of 2014).

As I type this, I’m fresh off a rare evening shift. l’m trying to stay awake until sunrise so i’m not wrecked on my next two night shifts. My brain’s a little toasted from running all over the respiratory ICU, so I’m presenting this to you in lists. I make a lot of lists.

The Things That Make Me Love Nightshift
1. The quiet/emptiness.
Ok, maybe not on the units. But in the hallways…it’s still. The stairwells are silent. There are no floods of chattering people coming to work or appointments, huddles of doctors, or sounds of the Java House coffee grinders. Just the faint, distant whirr of a carpet cleaner 2 pavilions over. At 3am, I take walks in the empty hallways (mostly the parts of the hospital I don’t ever get to see). I photograph art, hang out in the stairwell and whistle songs (the acoustics are brilliant), or sit in a chair somewhere remote and close my eyes. I always wonder if the bored security guards watch me and wonder “what’s this weirdo gonna do next?”

2. Maintenance Vs. “Doing Stuff”
Two days ago, I heard one of my favorite nurses say “On night shift, we just maintain. We’re not sending people to the OR or discharging them, they’re not getting physical therapy…we just gotta keep things from going down the tubes.” I don’t think she meant this in a negative or lazy way, I just think she meant that we’re partners with the night, when humans sleep and their brains “run updates”. We keep homeostasis and comfort til the sun comes up and it’s time to “do stuff” again. I like the idea of being partners with the night, recharging people’s brains, though I’m not always getting a fair share of rest for myself.

3. Night Shift Nurses are Awesome!
Now, day-shifters, don’t get me wrong. I love all of you and you get tons of respect from me. But the night-shifters, by and large, are a buncha’ weirdos…..MY PEOPLE! And I’m not talking nurses on rotating days/nights. You fellow healthcareworkers of the dark, you make me laugh. And since we’re not constantly surrounded by patient family members, managers and
all the other thousands of people that pass through the hospital each day, We can have conversations, vent, and display our messed up senses of humor with far less risk of being overheard.

4. TLC time.
Many night shifts are just giant shitstorms of one exhausting task after another, but I still feel I get to pamper my patients a little more at night than during the day. I can give backrubs (which no patient has ever complained about – even at the most bizarre times of night!) I can clean their rooms and make all the tangles of tubes and wires and cords more manageable for day shift. In the middle of the night, I can give a comatose patient a real soap and water bath, and sing to them (with the door closed, of course). I’m no saint, but if I have to be there, and they absolutely have to be there, we might as well try to make this shit pleasant.

5. Walking Away from the Chaos
At 7am or so, the hospital gets crazy. From the ridiculous traffic surrounding the medical campus, to the skywalk flooded with people marching to their departments with thermoses of coffee in hand, to the units which are abruptly flooded with doctors, visitors, physical theapists, meal delivery, ringing phones, endless call lights, it’s an overload of stimuli……And I put on my hat and coat, and walk to the bus or car with the sun shining on my face. There are few feelings more satisfying than that.

Things That Absolutely Suck About Night Shift (the less poetic list)
1. Say goodbye to socialization with ‘normal’ people
99% of the people I know, love and want to spend time with are awake when I’m sleeping and vice versa. In the past, I’ve left parties at my own house to go to work. I’ve regretted not curling up with Doug and a blanket on cold winter nights. I’ve skipped shows or events I’m excited about.  I’ve said no to lots of activities that happen in the daylight, too. I’ve also skimped on major amounts of sleep just so I could hang by the pool or beach an extra few hours, or spend time with friends. I wish I was better about getting out into the day time. If you ever wanna’ hang out at 3am on a Tuesday, I’m probably free. 

2. Invisibility
I’ve never met my current supervisor. I know you all are like “that’s aweome! What’s the big deal?”  While this has not presented any real problems at work, invisible workers generally don’t get recognition, promotions, etc. like day shift workers who interact with management regularly. I’d like my boss to know how awesome I am at my job.

3. Bad Timing
My body has no idea what is happening. I can sleep for 16 hours without problem, then stay awake for 32 hours (yes, I know this is probably killing me slowly), and then sleep for another crazy stretch. I also get insomnia when I’m not working. I lay in a comfortable bed under a fleece blanket, and my internal monologue runs on hyper-drive. I sometimes wake up at 3:45am to poop or eat a snack because that’s what I did 3 other nights that week. Doug is amazed if he sees my face before 11am on a day off. And this started when I was a teenager. I should donate my brain to the University upon my death, so they can see what decades of my sleep disorder brain looks like.

4. Ya’ll Need to Shut Up
People don’t get how tired you are unless they’ve done it. This is not just a night shift thing – it’s also a hospital thing. But with night shift, you’re defying your brain’s chemistry on top of the regular work. It’s a different, messed up kind of tired. The kind of tired that drains every facet of your being. you’re so tired you hurt, you can’t form proper sentences by 9am because your brain’s surge protector is about to click off, you’re hungry but the idea of lifting your arm to feed yourself is just too much work, AND you have to be back on shift later that night. Next time you see someone who works in a hospital, offer them a quickie neck rub or an apple or something (this includes when you see me).

5. Waking up at 5 and not knowing if it’s AM or PM.
Before Doug and I met, I lived alone and worked full time rotating shifts. I’d wake up at 5 (to be at work by either 7am or 7pm), However, in the fall and winter months when the days are short, there were times I’d wake up for work in the dark and have no idea if it was morning or night. (I could have easily gone to bed in the morning and woken up a full day later.) So the clocks in my house were set to military time for years before Doug became my beacon of sanity and timekeeping.

I could keep going, but it’s 2am. Gotta step away from this devil-laptop or I’m going to doze off. Maybe my next list can be about all the shit I do at home to stay awake on my nights off.

p.s. my cat is snoring in the chair beside me. *sigh* this is my life. and i love it.

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