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Night and Day and Night


Ever since I was a nursing student I knew the rhythm and mood of night shift was the one for me. I never liked waking up at the crack of dawn to hustle into the hospital and wait for the day’s chaos to unfold. Day shift was always too crowded, chaotic, noisy. Too many orders, busy work, and other time-consuming things that got in between me and the nursing care of my patients. I quickly realized how much I instead preferred coming into work at the end of the day. The visitors had all gone home, the patient’s procedures were completed and they were all tired out and ready for a good night’s rest. With the greatest of optimism I hoped it would lead to a peaceful shift of me watching and caring for the patients on my unit. This is a best case scenario.

Many people who do not work night shift, including my own mother, have the idea in their head that patients sleep all night. They imagine the nurses are there to tuck people into their beds, possibly read them a bedtime story, and sternly “Shush!” any potential noisemakers between the hours of 11 pm and 7 am. This was apparently true in the TV hospital shows of the 1960’s through 1980’s. From “Emergency!” to “General Hospital” you would see nurses in their starched white uniforms and caps, sitting at the nurses’ station, drinking coffee, smoking cigarettes and trading one-liners with visiting EMT’s and MD’s. They charted in a comfortably seated position for hours on end, getting up as needed to dramatically walk to a random spot in the hall and have a plot point conversation with another character. Or perhaps they would stroll to the cafeteria for a leisurely meal, unconcerned with the time and schedule of patient medications, treatments, procedures and so forth.

This is not the case in the real world. Realistically, nurses oftentimes can barely find the time to run to the bathroom in a 12 hour timeframe. Lunch in the cafeteria? Not happening.  Charting is done piecemeal in 30 second to three-minute spurts, usually while standing. If you’re lucky you might have one knee on a chair while you chart. Then off you go, because the call lights are endlessly ringing. There is less staff available on off shifts. Patients don’t sleep at night. Beds need changing. People have to go to the bathroom. People are in pain. People have insomnia. People get sick. The doctor needs to be called. Orders need to be acknowledged. Medications need to be located and dispensed. New patients are admitted to the unit at all hours. My mom doesn’t understand how this is true. I think she watched too many episodes of “Emergency!” or “General Hospital” in her day.

However, this is the general flow of night shift. You have great teamwork because there are fewer hands on deck. You get to know your patients better and there are fewer distractions in your work. There is only one problem I’ve never gotten used to on night shifts, and it doesn’t even happen on night shift. It happens the next day. This problem is finding a way to get your full night’s rest during the middle of the day.

Non-night shift working people (aka most of the world) don’t understand what is so hard about sleeping during the day. “Boy, I could sleep all day if I had the chance,” is what they’ll say. But sleeping in the day means you are trying to block out all light, noise and thoughts of what the rest of the world is up to while also falling into a deep sleep state. This is nearly impossible.

The rest of the world doesn’t understand why it can’t mow their lawn, bounce a basketball for 40 minutes straight, call your house, and ring your doorbell repeatedly. I’ve awakened to the smell of burning toast and was sure the house was on fire, so I tear out of bed and start evacuating my family. Perhaps my kids are squabbling. The garbage truck stops by. These are all necessary functions of the rest of the world and they cannot stop because I need to get sleep.

So, I try earplugs, an eye mask, closing the door, running a fan and/or air conditioner. Sometimes I get rest, most times I do not. I want to know what my kids are doing, I’d like to enjoy some time with my family. Because my body is in two different time zones at once, I am hungry in the middle of my “nighttime” sleep because it is actually lunch time in the real world time zone. So, I get up to make a sandwich and decide to check my e-mail. Then I notice the dishes need to get into the dishwasher. I have to make a phone call. And I’d like to visit with my kids for a while. This goes on and on until I have very little time to get my sleep before I need to “wake up” and start my night shift work. After reading this paragraph you can now better understand why I am not getting the sleep I should be getting right now, instead of typing this essay

A friend of mine at work always throws around encouraging statistics for night shift workers. “They don’t live their full life expectancy, research shows they die before their time.” I feel the truth in this statistic every time I have to go into work on just a few hours of light dozing. My night shift nutritional habits might also be heading me towards this statistic. Coffee, tea, and any other source of caffeinated beverage is the main group of the three night shift food groups. The other two night shift food groups are chocolate and salt. Following a healthy diet is nearly impossible because you don’t know if you are eating dinner or a middle of the night snack. When you get home you are unsure if you should eat breakfast or not because it isn’t healthy to eat a meal before bed. I still don’t have the right answers here. I usually go fully healthy on my days off, and hope it makes up somehow for my night shift food groups and sleep deprivation.

So the next time you try to ring someone’s door bell and they don’t answer, look for clues. Do you notice if their air conditioner is running and their curtains are pulled shut? Are they a nurse? If so don’t immediately try to call them on the phone to see why they haven’t answered. Also, don’t stand outside their front door dribbling your basketball while you’re getting your communication command post up and running. The exact same scenario on the flip side would be if the night shift worker came to your front door to visit at two in the morning, or called you on the phone to chat. Really, it’s true. Instead, just take a hint and send an email. Or better yet, just wait for them to reach out to you on a day they aren’t at work. It just might save your friendship. And a well-rested friend is a good friend to have. Thank you, and that is all.


About Fortyteen Candles

oh, let's see...distinguished Gen-X'er, frustrated writer, suffocating in the confines of a small town that thinks it's a big deal. A few years ago we were home to the second largest Walmart in our state, don-cha-know. Oh, and I was voted "Most New Wave" in my senior high school year book. Actually, that last sentence alone is really everything you need to know about me.

8 responses »

  1. My late sister Beth was a night nurse for about 35 years. She loved it — she felt she had more interesting nursing to do with fewer interruptions, as you said, from visitors, doctors, staff. But like you she complained about the disruption of her sleep patterns, about the phone calls, about noise.

    As an all-too-frequent hospital patient, I’ve found that the night nurses tended to help me more — because night was usually when I would get more frustrated with being sick and in the hospital to begin with.

    Nurses are truly angels. I have known many wonderful ones and only a few I didn’t appreciate.

    So on behalf of patients, Fortyteen, thanks for taking such good care of us. (And I know that’s not what you were looking for here with this post. Still, it is a good opportunity for me to say it!

    • Thank you for your comments and kind words, Elyse. Your experiences with night nurses is the exact reason why I became a nurse. Having less chaos gives me the time I need to make a difference and connect with my patients on a more personal level. Your sister truly was an angel to be able to work as a night nurse for so long!

  2. Love this post. How true. I liked night shifts too. I’m now retired but have many great memories. Thanks for stopping by my blog and “llking” a nursing memoir entry. Plus, I can tell you after years in suburbia, I’m now loving living downtown Chicago!

  3. Great post!! A few comments:
    *I always say there is no harder or more noble profession than nursing. I am a teacher and can work with teenagers all day long like nothing, but put me in your position and I would have a melt down within one hour. You deserve the pay that doctors get, because you do it all, and make it look easy. Kudos to you for what you do! I’m the least religious person going, but I do believe there’s a special place in heaven for nurses. 🙂
    * I had to laugh at your description of what it’s like to be a “night shift worker”. My husband is a police officer and has worked the night shift for 17 years, by choice. He’s exactly like you when it comes to trying to sleep. I don’t know how he does it, or you do it. BTW – we have nice neighbors who try to mow their lawns and work on their cars either later in the day or on days that they know he didn’t work the night before. You guys are troopers, because night shift workers are a whole nother breed. PS – If I had a dollar for everytime he has heard that whole life expectancy statistic…
    Keep up the good work on the blog!!!

    • Glad to hear your husband has chosen night shift for so long! I think police officers are heroes…..especially on night shift when things are just crazier in general! Thanks for the kind words about nurses. We are nurses because we care about people. We love our jobs, but we don’t always get the appreciatiation we deserve for our back breaking work. Teachers are certainly heroes as well! I have many in my family. Thanks for your wonderful comments 🙂

  4. Teresa Cleveland Wendel

    When Kurt was working the night shift, I took one of his tee shirts to a shop and had them print “I’d Rather Be Sleeping” across the chest.


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