I’ve seen this photo doing the rounds, quite a few times, and every time I see it, I wonder about the story behind it. Because it takes a lot to make a nurse cry in public. And to see three of them at once… well, whatever happened must have been absolutely awful.
You see, we nurses wear our scrubs like suits of armour, to create an element of protection for us from the painfully raw situations we find ourselves working in. We pull them on each day, taking a big breath and setting our jaws, not knowing what we are going into, but knowing that whatever it is, we need to get in there and do it. Because when I’m in my scrubs, I’m a nurse, and when I’m a nurse, I get shit done, regardless of what’s going down.
As with any suit of armour, if you look hard enough, you’ll see a weak spot – a place susceptible for attack. That weak spot, in a nurse, as you might expect, is the heart. Which is ironic really, because that weakness is also the source of our greatest strength.
That damn heart, that fills us with compassion and empathy, and pushes us to hope harder, and do better, is the exact thing that gets hit with the full force of an unexpected loss, or trauma, often before we have even finished the doing, and the fixing.
When my scrubs are on, you see the nurse version of me:
Polite, professional, empathic. Appropriate, and objective, just as I’ve been taught to be, and just as I’ve practiced.
I remember when I tried on my scrubs for the first time. I looked in the mirror and saw an imposter. The woman in the mirror didn’t look like me. She looked so much braver than I felt. For the first time, I saw my “nurse face”, and I realised that becoming THAT version of me was the only way I was possibly going to be able to manage the expectations and the stresses that accompany a nursing career.
So when I see pictures like this one, I understand that whatever happened to these girls was big enough to overpower every protective strategy they had in place. They copped that direct hit to the heart, straight through all of the defences that had previously protected them.
And, I understand it, all too well.
I was at work, in my scrubs when I received the phone call to tell me that my Pa was dying. And as I rushed down to ICU where he was being nursed, I was absolutely aware that all of the emotions I was feeling were about to overflow, and that I was in uniform. I knew, that if someone saw me crying and distressed in that moment, they’d think the worst, maybe about their own loved one. But in that instance, it wasn’t their world that was crumbling apart – it was mine.
That day, I couldn’t wait to get out of my scrubs, so that I could slip into an anonymous role, where my grief could flow freely. But there I was, looking like a nurse, and feeling the whole fucking gamut of human emotion. That day, the suit of armour that usually protected me, smothered me. The “nurse face” had no role to play here. I was simply a broken hearted grand-daughter, and there was nothing to hide behind. I needed to be able to weep, and I couldn’t let happen while people still saw me as a nurse.
I got home, threw off my clothes and howled.
And you know, that’s not unusual for a nurse. If we can, we wait to cry. We get things sorted, and fix what we can fix, and then we go home, hop in the shower and bawl. Or maybe we hide in the tearoom, or the pan room, and we debrief with our colleagues, because we all know how hard it can be to hold that shit together when the heart has received a direct hit.
After all, armour or no armour, we’re still human, despite our best efforts to appear otherwise.
And sometimes, like any other human on this planet, we just need to cry.
To my colleagues and friends who do this job with me: I love you. Thank you for your strength, thank you for your resilience, and thank you most of all, for your heart.