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The Dark Underbelly of Nursing

Most people don't want to hear about it, or know about it. Nursing is consistently listed as the most trusted profession, and we've all read the feel-good stories about how compassionate and kind a nurse was, how he or she saved a life, or how they were there in the darkest moments.

That's all well and good, and there's definitely a majority in the profession who behave as such.

But did you know about how cruel nurses are to one another? 

Many people have heard the saying, that mostly stems from the days of old, almost as a hazing: "Nurses eat their young".  Pretty well all of us in nursing were looked down upon, even scorned, by a preceptor or veteran nurse when we were brand new on the floors, fresh in our fun printed scrubs, unblemished by apathy and burnout. We've all been there.

Perhaps the most disconcerting part of the nursing profession, however, is the sheer cruelty that nurses will rain down on one another.

I was at lunch with a nurse friend today who had a horrible experience in an emergency department, as a veteran nurse. The staff that had opened this particular unit was mostly transferred in from another hospital in the same system. Does this mean the newly hired staff was treated with open arms and bellows of "Welcome aboard, fellow team! We are going to save lives together and we're SO happy that you're here!"

Nope. None of that. You see, some nursing units end up modeling the old, familiar high school clique. Comprised mostly of females who don't want their precious toes stepped on, nor want to compete for accolades against new blood, nurses new to those particular units are treated as outsiders. They aren't invited to the pre-shift little clique meeting in the break room. They're given the shitty room assignments, higher acuity patients, and receive less help from the other staff when they're drowning.

And if someone in the group has an advanced degree, most especially a doctorate in nursing, then ya'll just be prepared to be shit on excessively. 

It can be so ugly out there. It doesn't matter the hospital, the specialty, the area of the country. You can work in a hospital with the most stellar reputation in the land, and it will be like that moment when Mom and Dad look away and a sibling takes a swipe at their little sister and makes her cry. When nobody is looking, the claws come out.

Don't get me wrong, because the majority of my friends are other nurses, and they are the best people I know. But that's because often we've found each other while wading through the muck of personality conflicts and bone-wearying hours. We are lifelines to one another when one of the cliquey broads decides to unleash her wrath. We are teammates in dire circumstances, on opposite sides of the gurney starting IV's, doing chest compressions, bagging, cutting off clothes as someone attempts to take their last breaths against our wills. We are comrades when a physician berates us, or when the new policies come out that inevitably make our jobs even harder.

And so I would say to the nurses who purposely seemingly only exist to belittle other nurses:

You. You once didn't even know how to apply a blood pressure cuff. You took the same tests I did, you had to be a new nurse on your first day, scared out of your mind and timid. Your years of school compared to mine does not provide you a license to be nasty and make someone else's day hell. As a matter of fact, I have enough education, years-wise, to be a physician, so lets just allow you to have several seats. You are not better than the rest of us, we do not grovel at your feet. I DID notice that you are completely devoid of common sense and people skills, however. I'm not surprised you had to go back to school so you wouldn't have to do any ACTUAL patient care or nursing. I see you, I call you out, and I demand that you learn to be kinder and operate in grace for others in a really, really hard job. You are not God, and you are not my Mommy. I do not owe you one iota of respect when you do nothing but terrorize those who have to share your workspace. The old agage is 100% true; you catch more flies with honey than you do with vinegar, and you are ripe with the acridness of vinegar, dear. Honey up.

I am thankful for nurses who have stepped up over the years and voice their displeasure when they see a mistreated coworker. I was humbled when my friend today said that I was one of the only ones who stood up for her when she was treated so badly she went on FMLA for months because of PTSD. I didn't even realize I'd done that. Maybe some of the nasty nurses out there aren't even aware of their behavior because their personality is bruised and scarred over so terribly they don't realize that people dread being in a room with them. I'll give them the benefit of the doubt.

In the meantime, I ask patients and families to be fully aware of their surroundings; if you see a nurse being belittled, especially in front of you, say something. That nurse may be there taking that for 12 hours a day, on top of the busy, difficult job he or she already has. It's never ok to correct a nurse in front of a patient. There are etiquette rules of the profession, and that's a big one.

To nurses, let's do better. Let's actually help out when we see our coworker drowning. Let's consider that we're all doing a job that saps our energy and emotions most days, on top of the demands of family life. Nursing has one of the highest divorce rates of any profession, even higher than that of physicians. We're eating each other alive, chewing aimlessly and spitting each other out on the floor.

It has to stop. We are the most trusted profession. We care for others all day, at their most vulnerable. We may sometimes feel super-human, but let's remember that we're not. We're vulnerable ourselves. We don't practice radical self care enough when we leave our shifts. We burn out, become jaded and angry.

It doesn't have to be that way. Starting today, let's all do better. 

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