Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Healthy Nurses and The Self-Care Bandwagon

A few weeks ago, I was talking on the phone with a colleague who is not a nurse himself but who interacts with nurses on a regular basis in his professional life. His comments about nurses and their self-care (or lack thereof) were extremely thought-provoking.

Like I have said on this blog many times before, nurses are renowned for not taking good care of themselves, ostensibly because they're so busy taking care of others and living the lives of the saints that they are perceived to be. 

Let's face it. We all know that nurses aren't saints, while we also acknowledge that many nurses come close to sainthood vis-a-vis their compassion and their seeming ability to give until it hurts--and then give some more.

Getting back to my phone call with my colleague, he told me that, in speaking with a friend of his who is a dentist, the dentist made an interesting comment about nurses. In response to something my colleague said about nurses, the dentist said in response (and I paraphrase): 
"Nurses are my worst patients. They spend so much time taking care of others that they're very good at neglecting their own health, especially their teeth! Do nurses floss? I bet that the majority think they're too busy to take the time!"
So, what does this say about nurses? Well, first it says that many nurses potentially have very bad dental hygiene and may be at risk of gingivitis. (Remember the old saying: "You don't need to floss all of your teeth--only the ones you want to keep!")

This also tells me that there are non-nurses out there that recognize nurses' predilection for caring for others while neglecting themselves, and that this self-neglect is not always seen as a mark of sainthood. Did Mother Teresa take the time to floss? I assume that in the time of St. Francis of Assisi, floss had not yet been invented--nor had modern dentistry, for that matter!

The (Nurse) Gods Must Be Crazy

Whether it's teeth, lungs, heart or kidneys, nurses can certainly be neglectful of themselves. Poor flossing (or no flossing!), smoking, poor diet, lack of sleep, alcohol and drug abuse, poor hydration--it all adds up to a portrait of a very unhealthy nurse.

We all hear about nurses who don't have time to drink water or urinate during 12-hour shifts, so without self-catheterization, a leg bag and a CamelBack water hydration system, it seems many nurses might as well just send out an invitation for the Gods of Urinary Tract Infections to have a field day. (And maybe they can place a call to the Gods of Antibiotics at the same time.)

Heroism, Stoicism or Stupidity?

All joking aside (but it's so easy to make fun of nurses, isn't it?), self-care for nurses is essential yet such uncharted territory for a vast number of hard-working nurses.

Whether the wider culture or our profession's internal culture is responsible for these images of nurses as self-neglecting saints, we all know that unhealthy nurses can't really perform all that well in the long run (although running on caffeine and adrenaline may seem heroic).

I have personally known a number of nurses who appear to run on fumes most of the time, and I've seen some of them crash and burn in ways that were certainly not pretty.

I was myself once a heroic, self-neglecting nurse, and I paid a price (as did my family and loved ones). Eventually, I wised up and got on the self-care bandwagon, a wagon upon which I still proudly ride to this day.

Sure, back then I did think of myself as a nurse hero, stoically (or stupidly) crashing through my stressful days with little thought for myself. It was exhilarating, and condemning myself to poor self-care in deference to caring for my patients was a extraordinary ego trip that fed some part of myself that was at once stoic, heroic and indeed stupid.

But that was then, and this is now.

The Self-Care Bandwagon

Whether it's flossing, jogging, getting some sleep, taking breaks at work or playing golf every weekend, nurses can take their own self-care into their hands, deciding for themselves that it's important and healthy to do so.

Nurses can fight the stereotypes, and they can also fight the powers that be (and the dominant nursing culture) that insists that we sacrifice ourselves on the altar of patient care. That altar of self-sacrifice is old hat, and we 21st-century nurses can teach ourselves and others that self-care is a good thing, that it's actually better for patients, and that supporting one another to take care of ourselves makes sense, both in the short term and the long term.

If you're a nurse who has yet to jump on the self-care bandwagon, realize that there are no tolls for climbing aboard, but the price you'll pay for staying on the Self-Neglect Express is higher than you can ever imagine.

So, instead of trying to be a hero to others through sacrifice, be a hero to yourself through self-care and wellness. Your patients will benefit, your family will benefit, and your happiness, well-being and quality of life will improve astronomically.

Go ahead, nurses. Take off the hairshirt, put down your cross, and dispose of your bed of nails. The self-care train is always at the station, and all you have to do is climb aboard.
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