Interview with an ICU nurse

Tori Scearbo has been a nurse for 18 years. She has been in the military since she was 19. For many years Tori has been the chief nurse for the medical group of the New Hampshire Air National Guard. She also works as a critical care nurse in the Intensive Care Unit (ICU) of two local Seacoast hospitals. She was interviewed by HHF Board Member Kate Swenson Tuttle for National Nurses Month in May 2022.

What made you want to become a nurse? 

My grandmother was a nurse and my sisters and I spent a lot of time with her growing up. Our childhood had a lot of dysfunction and abuse so as I became an adult, the idea of helping people feel better was really important to me – and my sisters. All 3 of us are nurses. 

What have the last 2 years been like for you and your colleagues? 

We become nurses because we have a desire to help people. In the past couple of years, not being able to help people despite all the efforts has been devastating. Even with the best medical care, the patients were dying anyway. It was so hard to be the nurse and also the bridge to the family (via FaceTime). I sat with so many people as they died, holding their hand so they did not feel alone. Early in the pandemic I worked in the role of a palliative care nurse and was able to focus more on the emotional and supportive aspects of being a nurse with these dying patients. In the ICU my nursing role is to focus first on the medical care and treatment that the patient needs. We do not always have time in the moment to provide emotional support they need. My  job is to make sure my patient is getting the medications they need and that their ventilators are managed. This nursing is much different. One night I had two patients with COVID, both intubated and in the same room because we had no more rooms. One died and I didn’t have the option to provide postmortem care because I had to focus on keeping the other one alive. It was horrible, and that is not a normal experience in nursing. One thing that I did get out of this awful pandemic was that I built deep connections with families whose loved ones died from COVID. I was invited to funerals and presented with meaningful symbols of appreciation. That’s not something we feel often these days. 

So many of my colleagues left bedside nursing due to burnout and lack of emotional support for nurses – no one talks about what this has done to people’s souls or the effect this has had on those of us who are in it to help people. There is no mental health support for nurses. Despite all medical efforts, the end results were often the same – we just held hands of people dying versus being able to provide healing support. I could start crying talking about this. I hadn’t really thought about how deeply this has impacted me until I am talking about it now. My normal day at work wasn’t normal at all – but became the new normal, I guess. 

How are things different now? 

Everyone hears COVID cases are down (there are currently very few in local hospitals) but they don’t understand what the pandemic did to nurses – meaning so many left the profession that now there is an even greater shortage to care for ICU patients. So although it’s not COVID deaths we are managing, the stress to care for other critically ill patients is high because so many nurses have quit. We have several travel nurses at this time because we are consistently short staffed. This is nation wide. I truly do not believe that non-medical people understand the crisis that we are in.   Medical professionals are leaving medicine! You do realize that you need us to care for you if you get sick, right? It is very scary to me.

Do you have any advice to offer future nurses? 

I just hope that nursing students know what they are getting into and do it for the right reasons. To be a nurse means to be compassionate and care about people. There is often a lot of reward in that but there are many days that there is no recognition. The truth is that this is a profession where when people don’t hear what they want to hear [about their own medical situation] they often take it out on nurses. Violence, verbal and emotional abuse does happen at the bedside. We get sworn at and spit on. It is very important for nurses to advocate for themselves and fellow nurses. Nurses need to stick together and support each other. You need to be a team player and continue to educate people about their own role in promoting health. 

Which leads me to the next question – any advice for future patients? 

Take care of yourself! You cannot expect to come into the hospital to be “fixed” after years of abusing your body, getting angry when we can’t fix you. Nurses tend to take the brunt of that – nurses receive disrespect from patients who don’t want to hear the hard truth. We are here to help and can offer education and support. Be kind to nurses.