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What It’s Like to Be a Critical Care Nurse With Ongoing Traumatic Stress Disorder

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Editor's Note

The following post contains graphic medical content.

I’ve heard that individuals who work in Critical Care areas of hospitals have a high rate of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). But is it post-traumatic if every day has the potential of trauma?

• What is PTSD?

I can still see the face of the first child I performed post-mortem care on. I can still hear the scream of a mother seeing her child, swollen with excess fluid, breathing only with the help of a ventilator. I can still feel the shaking body of a father as I led him to see his child for the last time. I can still smell the strong stench of cleaning solution from environmental services mopping up a blood-stained floor after a code.

I close my eyes at night, but I cannot sleep. My thoughts cannot turn off. I see the trauma. I hear the trauma.

I re-direct to happy experiences. I have seen kids regain strength, when we were sure they would be forever devastated. I have had parents hug me, elated by the news that their child is improving. I have had former patients visit, excited with the opportunity to show us how well they are doing now. I have seen miracles that have almost made me believe in God (and I’m not religious). The good by far outweighs the bad.

But unfortunately, the bad is what I see and hear when I close my eyes. The trauma does not end after I walk out the hospital doors. The trauma does not end weeks later. The trauma is ongoing.

People say, “I could never work in the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit” and “I don’t know how you do it.” Truth is, we don’t know how we do it either. We just do it. We live with ongoing traumatic stress disorder (OTSD).

OTSD is a term I use to explain how I feel some days at work. There are articles online that use this term too, and others that use the term “continuous traumatic stress.” While it’s similar to PTSD, the stressors are ongoing.

Every day, when I go to work, I do not know if I’m going to experience another traumatic event, or get triggered by reminders of previous traumas. People often ask my colleagues and me how we do our job, and I don’t think there is an answer. We just learn to live with the trauma.

It’s important to seek professional help if the stress starts to impact your everyday life. I lean on my colleagues and rely on fun nights at home with my friends and their kids. As much as family and friends are important, it’s also important to talk things through with people that can relate. More experienced nurses/coworkers can also give you insight and coping mechanisms that may be helpful.

Some people say to “leave work at work,” but I disagree to some extent. I think it is important to talk things through, write about your feelings or find another way to get through the traumas.

Getty image via kieferpix.

Originally published: March 27, 2020
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