13 Secrets of Nurses

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A good, caring nurse can be the difference between a pleasant hospital visit and a terrible one. And while you might know your nurse’s name, a lot goes on before, during, and after your stay that you might not be aware of. From the ER to the ICU, here are a few insights from caregivers from different arms of the nursing profession.

Note: These nurses did not want me to use their full names or identify their hospitals, for fear of being reprimanded at work. I’ve used their first names only.  

1. WebMD is the enemy.

Nurses love it when you’re educated on your symptoms and potential treatments, but they say that sometimes the Internet does more harm than good for patients. “If I had a nickel for every time someone came in and said, ‘WebMD says this,’ I wouldn’t have to work,” says Hilary, a neurosurgical nurse in Washington, D.C. “Google searching can be disastrous because it can cause panic. It’s important to get information straight from medical staff as opposed to looking it up on the computer and thinking they have 24 hours to live.”

2. Nobody wants the Monday shift.

The beginning of the week is rough for most of us, but nurses have it particularly bad. “If someone is sick, they’ll wait to come in until Monday,” explains Lila, an emergency room Registered Nurse in Nashville, Tenn. This means Mondays are slammed with people who’ve been living with their symptoms for several days. Plus, hospitals are short-staffed on weekends, so productivity drops. “Most of the main team takes the weekends off,” says Jessica, a transplant nurse. “So when you come in on Mondays you’ll get tons of orders because nothing was done all weekend.”

3. Newbies get hazed.

“There’s a saying that nurses tend to eat their young,” Hilary says. “Unfortunately with older nurses that is sometimes the norm. New nurses might be given patients who require more work or have to be changed every hour, or heavier patients, things of that nature.” Research suggests between 35 and 60 percent of new nurses abandon their posts within the first six months due to internal bullying. Emily H., a family nurse practitioner in Atlanta, Ga., currently working in post-Ebola Sierra Leone, says this kind of confrontational culture makes it really hard to find mentorship and support. “Schools of medicine have really well established internal mentorship programs,” she says. “You have attending physicians, you have a system of residency. We don't really get that. If you want a mentor in nursing you have to go find one. I've knocked on plenty of doors asking for advice, even in my department, and I got a lot of 'well I'm just really busy.'” 

4. They do a lot of heavy lifting.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, nurses suffer more than 35,000 injuries a year, making them some of the most commonly injured workers in America, alongside firefighters and police officers. The main cause? Rising obesity rates in patients. “Obesity is becoming a norm, and when we have to turn and boost patients, we have to do it ourselves,” Hilary says. “When you have a heavy patient, you are just physically and mentally drained by end of the day. One day a patient asked me if I had an artificial leg because my knee was so bad I was walking with a limp. And the hospital doesn’t always cover damages done on the job.” 

5. Nurses have a (twisted) sense of humor.

Anyone eavesdropping on a conversation between nurses would probably be appalled by what might seem like a lack empathy for patients. But making light of terrible situations is a coping mechanism. “I had a patient who got his leg broken by a camel and it’s just the funniest damn thing,” Lila says. “It sucks for the patient, but we all share stories about things that make us laugh because that really helps us make it through.” Pranks and games help, too: Hilary says it’s common on her floor for nurses to use saline syringes as squirt guns. Jessica says her team sometimes has impromptu dance parties.

6. The bathroom is for crying.

Even with their various coping methods, nurses see a lot of terrible things, and sometimes it can be too much to handle. Instead of breaking down in front of a patient, nurses will escape to the bathroom. “That’s our spot where we cry and we grieve and we deal with it and then we wipe our faces off and put makeup back on and go back out there,” Lila says. “Our patients don’t need to see our grief. They don’t need to take care of us, we need to take care of them. I call it the emotional wall, and all nurses have it.”

7. Young male patients are whiners.

When it comes to high maintenance patients, men between the ages of 20 and 40 are the worst offenders, Hilary says: “They cannot handle pain or discomfort. They’re completely babies. They’ll be like, ‘Can you please cut my food for me?’ No, you’ve got two good hands, you can do this.”

8. They feel like drug dealers.

The emergency room sees its fair share of “drug seekers”—people who claim to be in pain but are really looking for narcotics. “Some doctors have the perspective that we should give them what they want because we’re not gonna cure their drug addiction today,” Lila says. “So sometimes we feel like drug dealers in the ER. I know exactly what they want and exactly what they’re gonna get."

9. They speak in code.

“When we have a poopy patient, all we have to do is yell, ‘CODE BROWN’ and nurses know what we mean,” Hilary says.

10. And they don’t say the Q word.

Nurses abide by a number of superstitions. For example, acknowledging that a shift is particularly slow is a jinx that promises a flood of new patients momentarily. “We never say ‘slow,’ ‘quiet’ or ‘bored,’” Lila says. “Unless you wanna get murdered in the ER.” If you must comment on the slowness, “chill” is the preferred adjective.

Also, many nurses know the lunar cycle and claim the full moon coincides with busier shifts, though there isn’t much data to back this up

11. They wish you would stop bringing them cakes

Although doctors and nurses like being appreciated for what they do, they’re sick of the sweet stuff. “A lot of people think all we want is donuts and cake,” says Lila. “There’s constantly junk food everywhere because people want to boost our morale by bringing us food that makes us fat. It’s really hard to stay in shape.”

12. They’re morning drinkers.

A common ritual among nightshifters is the morning beer over breakfast with your fellow nurses. It’s a good way to let off steam and bond with coworkers. “If you work the night shift, you know the places that start serving alcohol at 7 a.m.,” Lila says.

13. You should ask them for the good stuff.

Nurses know where the hospital keeps its stash of extra pillows, blankets, and toiletries; all patients need to do to get them is ask. Another good rule of thumb: Be good to your nurse, and they’ll be good to you. “We do our best to go the extra mile if someone really wants something,” says Jessica says. “I had a patient who loved pizza but hated our pizza, so my coworker had a boyfriend who worked at a local pizza shop and she brought pizza in for them.”