What is it like to be an ICU nurse?

Translated by Herbert Meck.

In our new series, club visitors tell us about their everyday working lives. Today, Marilu tells us about her work as a nurse in Munich.

What do you do for a living? How long have you been doing this job?

I am a nurse by profession. I graduated as a nurse in Italy one and a half years ago and have been working in the intensive care unit here in Munich for eight months. By the way, I have to mention that in Italy you need a degree to be a nurse. In Germany, on the other hand, training is sufficient.

How did you get into this profession?

I would like to say that I have always dreamed of becoming a nurse, but that would be a lie. Since I was a child and until I finished high school, my dream was to become a doctor. In Italy, the exam to enter medical school is very complicated, and although I tried very hard, I didn’t pass. 

However, I always knew, even though at 18 I knew even less about myself, that I wanted to have very close contact with people at work. So I pursued my Plan B: to study nursing. But as Dalai Lama says, “Remember that sometimes not getting what you wanted can be a wonderful stroke of luck.” That’s exactly how it was for me. My Plan B brought me a lot of luck. 

What does your normal working day look like?

A nurse’s workday depends, in part, on the shift he or she works that day. We work morning, afternoon and night shifts. However, what is common to all shifts is the fact that, especially in an ICU like mine, you are completely responsible for the patient from the moment you receive the handoff from your colleague. 

The goal of each shift is to respond to the patient’s or patient’s needs and work with the team to improve the condition of the ill person. 

A nurse is also responsible for administering medications. Both intravenous and intramuscular medications, some of which must be diluted and administered through infusion pumps. We also keep track of the equipment that controls the rate of administration. We are also responsible for patient care and hygiene, wound care and dressing changes.

We also ensure proper respiratory function by suctioning lung secretions and caring for so-called tracheostomies. These are artificially created breathing openings in the area of the throat. For patients who are unable to move independently, we have to make sure that they regularly change their position in bed, otherwise, their skin would be damaged in the place where they have been lying for too long. We monitor the patients’ so-called vital signs, such as temperature, blood pressure, pulse, and we are obliged to inform the doctors if we notice that “something is wrong”. We prepare patients for diagnostic examinations, such as X-ray imaging, for example. This is because patients in the ICU are dependent on monitors and IVs 24/7 and cannot go to exams on their own. We calculate the fluids that enter and leave the patient’s body. There is much more that is part of our daily tasks. But if I have to list everything here, I won’t be able to finish it today.

What other tasks do you have to do at work that people don’t normally associate with your job?

More than once I have been asked, “What do you do at work?”

But if the person I am talking to is not a colleague of mine, or a person who works in the medical field, I always find it difficult to answer this question. 

I will try to answer this question in a simple and fun way. Would you have expected a nurse to untangle tangled cables? 

However, in order to measure a patient’s vital signs, such as pulse, blood pressure, and temperature 24 hours a day, we need monitors full of cables, and the same goes for administering intravenous medications. These cables very often get tangled up…. In short, I often find myself sorting through tangles of cables during my workday, which eventually become a mess again.

What do you like most about your job?

I am proud of my work and happy to be able to do it, because in a world that often focuses on the superficial, I return every day to the base, to what counts: life and gratitude for it.

What do you find exhausting about your job?

There are days when I come home from work physically tired. I spend almost my entire workday on my feet, “running” from one patient to another. But if I had to choose something that stresses me out the most, it’s the fear that one mistake could cost a patient their health, if not their life. It’s a fear that sometimes follows you home and to sleep when you hear the alarms of monitors going off in your head. But I’m a young nurse, maybe with the years at least the sounds will go away in my sleep?

Do you think you earn well and sufficiently for your work?

I find that the nursing profession is still not properly recognised economically and socially in most countries of the world. I find that our profession is often taken for granted.I am not dissatisfied with my salary, but when I compare it to other professions, I sometimes think that we don’t get much. 

I don’t understand how some professions can bring in so much more income than others that are just as or even more important. But who am I to say that nursing is more important than the work of a blogger or a football player?

But is what a nurse can do for a person really worth less than an Instagram post by a fashion blogger?

The pandemic has put us in the spotlight and perhaps led to recognition being given to us, but I think we need to continue to take steps in many contexts to really get appreciation for our status.

Would you change jobs if you had the chance?

I don’t have the desire to change jobs at the moment. However, I am glad that as a nurse I can possibly do something else in my life at the same time, either as a hobby or for work. Like getting involved socially or just doing more sports, reading more, or writing. Something that might have been less or more difficult to do as a doctor.  I don’t rule out reducing my working hours in the future to cultivate other parts of my personality.

What do you wish for your professional life in the future?

My first wish for my professional life is to never lose my humanity, a risk I see in my profession. I mean to continue to respond to the needs of the patients despite the fatigue, the lack of staff, the time pressure and the patients who think that the nurses are their personal servants. It is easy to become insensitive to the patients because of the stress, the physical and psychological fatigue.

My second wish at the moment is to acquire more knowledge and tools to make myself and my patients feel more secure. 

Thank you for these insights, Marilú!

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