Friday, September 11, 2009

The Nurse as Sisyphus

As I march headlong towards my last day at work as a public health nurse, I am reminded again and again how the work of a nurse often seems Sisyphean in nature. Sisyphus, you may recall, is the poor downtrodden soul who was doomed by Hades to spend the rest of his days pushing a boulder up an impossibly steep hill, only to have it roll back down at the end of the day, making his day's toil utterly useless.

Now, I am not meaning to say that my work as a nurse is thankless, pointless and unrewarding. Far from it. But the Sisyphean aspect of nursing resides in the notion that whatever we do, however we do it, it never seems to be enough. Nursing of all kinds demands attention to detail, amazing amounts of paperwork, vast stores of patience (and some patients, as well, of course), and a willingness to consistently give more than you may have been ready or able to give. In my view, nursing is often the work of the willingly codependent, those of us willing, able and ready to go above and beyond again and again, even when it is against our better judgment, compromises our health, and subjects us to the vicissitudes of stress-induced illness.

As a nurse, I have consistently found myself in positions wherein I felt indispensable, the repository of information or knowledge that is, a) difficult to pass on and, b) incredibly important. Whether it be patient care or public health management, taking my leave of a nursing position is so often fraught with anxiety, hard work, and the knowledge that not everything that I know can be clearly communicated to my successor.

Winding up my work as a public health nurse, I am hard pressed to write down the endless details that constitute my position and my work from day to day. When I took this position, I was given five sheets of paper with cryptic instructions, three hours of rushed training, and an office and files that were in dire need of organization. I inherited a multifaceted position that was poorly explained and passed on in a manner that created the steepest possible learning curve as I dipped my toes in the waters of local public health.

Now, preparing for my successor (who has yet to be identified despite my having given a very generous three months' notice some two months ago), I am writing a training manual, organizing files, streamlining processes, and preparing for what I hope will be two full weeks of training for a position that is simultaneously fascinating and maddening.

As my wife and I prepare to step into the unknown in our personal lives, I am hoping to create as few unknowns as possible for the intrepid soul who picks up where I leave off at the health department. And with H1N1 breathing down our necks, that will not be a small undertaking for myself or the next in line.

So, I struggle to create a seamless transition, knowing full well that some "t" will be left uncrossed, some "i" undotted, and some loose end will inevitable be left untied. Did I say that this undertaking was Sisyphean? It may very well seem that way, but on October 15th when I leave that office behind, my shoulder will no longer bear the burden of the boulder being pushed up that hill, and I, for one, will rejoice at the freedom that the loss of that burden will engender.

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