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18 Totally Honest Confessions From Emergency Room Nurses

We know that whatever you got stuck up your butt didn’t get there from falling on it.

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For this post, BuzzFeed Health spoke with emergency department registered nurses Kristen Ligowitz, Courtney Turgeon, and Meg Morris.

1. Your visit to the emergency room will take a while, but tbh it’s pretty much always for a good reason.

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An ER stay can last anywhere from 3-10 hours. Trust us, it’s not because we’re just sitting around doing nothing. Machines break down, hospitals are short-staffed…there are a variety of reasons why your stay can take so long. But the most probable reason is simply that other patients need care first. For example, trauma patients are always bumped to the top of our priority list. So if there’s a waiting room full of people and someone goes in before you, you should be glad you’re not that person, because they’re most likely sicker than you. Likewise, we don’t like to ignore anyone once they’re in the ER, but if we haven’t been in your room in a while, it’s because you’re OK in relation to other people we’re taking care of.

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2. Heart attacks are just the beginning of all the health problems we see.

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There’s literally every kind of condition you can think of coming through the ER doors, from cuts/burns from cooking accidents to drug overdoses, and much more. We also treat people across the age and disease/illness spectrum, so it’s not uncommon to see a child with broken bones next to an elderly person with a urinary tract infection. Oftentimes, the same conditions will present themselves differently in different people, and sometimes people will come in with more than one condition, like having a mental illness along with substance abuse issues. No matter what it is, we always have to be on top of our game.

3. Yes, we do get people with various objects stuck inside their butts.

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Screwdrivers, vegetables, vibrators, beer bottles — you name it! We don’t know why you did it, but now you’re here. Sometimes we get the actual story about what happened and sometimes patients tell us they “just fell on it.” But no matter how it got there, we’re there to help get it out.

4. And this has taught us that you really don’t know people’s stories solely based on how they look.

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Whether it’s random things stuck inside people’s bodies (and the random AF sex stories that follow), people overdosing on heroin, whatever...nobody ever really fits the stereotype. In fact, once you get past those stereotypes and realize that everyone is a human with their own backstory, you can actually get down to giving them the care they deserve.

5. Nursing school and ER trainings are a big part of our education, but every day is actually a learning experience.

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Along with becoming licensed as a registered nurse — and learning everything there is to know about caring for people — emergency departments will often have more specific orientations where they train you in things like critical care medications, vents, and ER procedures. But just because you pass formal training doesn’t mean you’re done learning. Every day there are new diagnoses, medicines, and procedures that pop up, so you constantly have to be ahead of the curve by continuing to study if you want to be the best ER nurse you can possibly be.

6. That said, there are still some gaps in mental health care where more training would help.

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Our psychiatric patients run the gamut from talking about suicide to having manic episodes to being totally detached from reality due to hallucinations. Fortunately, we learn all about mental illnesses in nursing school and briefly touch on each condition when we take our board exams. However, one area we wish we got more training in is communicating with patients who have these illnesses. It would be great to be able to know what to say (and how to say it) to determine what kind of illness someone going through a crisis might have, and be more equipped to deescalate emergencies.

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7. Thankfully, we have a whole hospital’s worth of staff to help us when we’re unsure about something.

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Aside from ER nurses and doctors, there are also respiratory therapists, pharmacists, nurse practitioners, physicians assistants, EMTs, social workers, and more. We’re also constantly working with other teams throughout the hospital, so that patients with special needs (like brain damage) are taken care of. Altogether, this huge team allows us to run like a well-oiled machine.

8. During our busiest times, we’re basically running all over the place.

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Since ERs can be so chaotic and there are so many different ranges of sickness, knowing how to prioritize who comes first and when to do what becomes a big part of our job. There’s always the chance that you’ll be tending to a patient when another one codes and you have to stop what you’re doing to go help them, then once they’re stabilized, you just pick back up on what you were doing.

9. Verbal and physical abuse are sometimes just a part of the job.

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Both patients and family members can be verbally abusive — yelling at us, cursing at us, and threatening us — but usually it’s the patients who punch and kick us. That said, sometimes it’s unintentional, coming from confused patients like someone with Alzheimer’s disease. But other times it can be from someone who’s under the influence of alcohol or recreational drugs, and when this happens, we will probably have to call in security to help us out.

10. Most of what you see on TV about nurses and doctors is wrong.

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We love shows like Grey’s Anatomy, House, and ER just as much as the next person, but most of them show the doctors doing the majority of the care rather than nurses, when it’s actually the other way around. Nurses are the ones trained in hands-on care, like inserting IVs, drawing blood, compressions, and administering medications. Doctors aren’t as well-versed in these tasks, and that’s because their job is specifically to assess their patients by honing in on symptoms and then determining what they need. That said, both of our jobs complement each other nicely, and in that way, we’re able to help patients as effectively as possible.

11. Wayyy too many patients use us as a primary care provider, but it shouldn’t be that way.

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Sure, it’s convenient with us being open 24/7, but if you have something like a UTI, a sore throat, or some scratches, your general practitioner is the person you should see. Using an ER for primary care eats up all of our resources and increases the amount of time everyone has to wait — not to mention ER bills tend to be more expensive. If your reason for going to the ER is because you don’t have insurance, there are programs and clinics that can help, so that you’re getting care before the issue gets too bad.

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12. We see a lot of the same patients coming in over and over, and it can be pretty sad.

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One of our biggest struggles is seeing the same patients coming in because they can’t (or don’t want to) help themselves — people who don’t take their medications once they’re home or can’t stop drinking alcohol or taking drugs, for example. Of course, in most situations the patients are not taking meds or continuing to drink or use drugs because they’re going through their own struggles. That said, it can definitely be upsetting to see the same people coming in, knowing that we can only do so much for them. But of course, we’re still going to do everything we can.

13. Sometimes, we wish patients would ask more questions if they don’t understand something.

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We want people to go home understanding what’s going on with them and how to get better. But even though we try our hardest to explain things and give easy-to-follow directions, it’s easy for us — with the way we talk to our colleagues — to use medical terminology and not realize it. Many patients end up coming back to the ER because they didn’t understand the directions we gave, so it’s in their best interest to ask however many questions it takes to fully get it.

15. But because there are other patients to care for, we often have to hide our emotions.

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If we’re joking around and smiling with patients/colleagues in the ER, it’s not because we’re jaded or don’t care about all the serious illnesses and death we see every day. It’s our responsibility to ensure the same level of care and compassion for each patient, and that means acting like we’re perfectly OK after something bad happens, even though we may be replaying it over and over again in our heads.

16. And because of that, we often leave work wondering what we could’ve done differently.

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On days that are especially busy or tragic, it’s hard to leave work without taking it with us. Usually, that means recapping the day; thinking about a family who may not have a loved one coming back to them, or thinking about somebody who just had a tragic diagnosis — one that’s going to change the course of their life.

17. You also wouldn’t believe how long our shifts can be.

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It’s safe to say that we give a lot of ourselves each day. Although we usually only work three days a week, our shifts are at least 12 hours long (sometimes a little longer), so we leave feeling just as emotionally and intellectually exhausted as physically exhausted.

18. But at the end of the day, there’s nothing we’d rather be doing than helping people during what is often one of their worst days.

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Most of us become ER nurses because we have an insatiable appetite for helping people. It’s extremely rewarding to see that patient with a stomach bug receive IV treatment and some nausea medication, then walk out of the ER a few hours later, and just as rewarding knowing that you could provide the emotional support another patient needed after being diagnosed with terminal cancer. It’s emotional and it can be heavy on the heart, but there’s nothing else in the world that can compare to the feeling you get knowing that you helped someone get through such a difficult time.

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