The guilt of a retired nurse


I am 64 years old. I was a nurse for 34 years, retiring a year, and three months ago, I worked on the medical-surgical floor, ICU, and the last 30 years, in the emergency room. I retired because I’d had enough.

This year has changed me. My life no longer revolves around my ER job. I am not exhausted from 12-hour shifts, taking at least a day to recover. I no longer dread going to work, that dread starting a day ahead of time.

I am not tense all the time. I no longer sit on the edge of my seat, ready to jump up when something bad happens.  I like people again. I no longer hate the public. I no longer think about 75% of people are idiots.

I still have the ability to size people up in 10-15 seconds. I learned to read body language very easily. I can still turn on “calm mode” in times of extreme stress.  Even though I am anxious as shit, I learned to turn it off when necessary. I am doing that now to some extent with the pandemic.

The hardest part about being retired right now is worrying about and thinking about my former co-workers. Every day I worry. Fortunately, we live in a state with only (!) about a thousand cases right now. People seem to be staying at home. Hopefully, that continues.

In fact, my old hospital ER hasn’t been busy.   It is in the middle of a poor neighborhood. I’m sure people are scared to come to the hospital right now.  Those symptoms that drove them to the hospital for nonemergent things have now become manageable at home.

So there they are waiting and wearing protective gear all day. I’m glad they have it.  The hospital fears running out, as well they should. They are taking LOAs because the census is low, probably voluntary and involuntary.

They are getting coronavirus patients, but are not overwhelmed.  There is a unit set up for the coronavirus. I think all ICU beds are now negative airflow. I am sure the ER nurses, as well as all the other nurses in the hospital, are scared to take care of COVID patients. They do it. They have no choice.

I feel guilty that I’m not there with them sharing the fear. I care about them. After working together for years, they became family. I know their situations. I know them personally and how they react to things.

So I have struggled. If it gets bad, should I go back? I know I would be OK, rusty, but able to function. I was gone a year during my career once and picked it back up like I had never left—I’m not late 30s like I was then. My body is no longer used to being on my feet for 12 hours.

So I don’t know what I would do in a bad situation. The pull is there. How can I sit by with people dying and my old friends struggling?  I don’t know. My family would be adamantly opposed to it. They would worry constantly. I would endanger them. I am at higher risk at my age and have a couple of underlying conditions that are well controlled.  It’s a dilemma I don’t want to face.

Susan Shannon is a retired nurse who blogs at madness: tales of a retired emergency room nurse.

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