As the American nursing profession turns a corner into the next chapter of the COVID-19 pandemic, many nurses may be considering their next steps in both life and career. Priorities may be shifting, and what seemed important in early 2020 may seem less so now. Some, of course, are exiting the profession stage left, while others may be choosing to double down on their career, even if their overall trajectory may be in flux. Every choice has its merits, and each decision its reverberations.
Of risk and reward
Gambling may not be part of everyone’s chosen lifestyle, but most major life choices involve some level of risk — marriage and having or adopting a child readily come to mind.
In the realm of careers, myriad potentially risky investments are involved, including the cost of education in terms of time, money, and personal resources. There are other sacrifices that must be made by both the student and their family members when engaging in a rigorous educational pathway like nursing.
When we bet on nursing as a career, we double down on a particular course of action, joining millions of others who have done the same. Our profession is by no means perfect, nor is the healthcare system that enables us to engage in our vocation. Here lie other risks: entering the belly of the beast and becoming a part of an often labyrinthine and confounding system that may seem to enjoy chewing up and spitting out far too many of our colleagues.
With hard work, a stellar attitude, and a touch of serendipity or synchronicity, the rewards of a nursing career can far outweigh the challenges and vicissitudes that one will encounter. The bigger the risk, the bigger the reward, and a fair number of nurses would likely still agree that choosing nursing was the right decision.
The mitochondria of healthcare
Healthcare cannot function without nurses, who serve as the metaphorical mitochondria of the system. We are the energy powerhouses who inject our passion, knowledge, and expertise into the process of serving the greater good, be it in acute care, home health, hospice, school nursing, entrepreneurship, research, or elsewhere.
When an individual decides to embark on a path of nursing service, they join a long lineage of those who came before them. Innovators and mavericks abound, as do those who staff the ICUs, home health agencies, and assisted living facilities where countless patients land. Have all been happy and fulfilled in their roles? Unlikely; and in fact, some ran screaming from nursing in the opposite direction. From bullying and lateral violence to understaffing and burnout, there are plenty of reasons to escape. But those who remain in the ranks drive the healthcare engine and contribute in the way they see fit and where circumstances take them.
The (almost) post-pandemic world
Here in the United States and other fortunate and privileged countries, we have indeed turned a noteworthy corner on COVID-19. A considerable proportion of the healthcare workforce is burned out, traumatized, exhausted, and perhaps even disillusioned. Some made the ultimate sacrifice, losing their lives to the virus or even to the tragedy of suicide under astronomical duress. Some will heal and move forward, and some will limp along without the benefit of healing; we can only hope they eventually receive what they need in order to go on with their lives and find relative health and happiness.
The repercussions of the pandemic are legion and will be felt for generations, and also, of course, among generations of nurses. Still, optimism on behalf of the profession in the post-pandemic world is warranted despite the trauma that many have endured.
To those who are doubling down on nursing and placing their bets on our profession, we’re eternally grateful; and to those who cannot or will not do so, we bless you on your journey. There’s still much work to be done to transform American healthcare, improve conditions for hard-working nurses, and provide our patients with the care they deserve.
In the (almost) post-pandemic world, we’ll dig in our heels, revel in our successes, learn from our failures, and soldier on as we always have.
Keith Carlson, BSN, RN, NC-BC is a holistic career coach for nurses, award-winning nurse blogger, writer, podcaster, speaker, and author.
With two decades of nursing experience, Keith understands the issues faced by 21st-century nurses. Keith’s podcast, The Nurse Keith Show, offers inspiration and practical support to nurses seeking to create meaningful lives and careers.
Keith’s message of savvy career management reaches nurses worldwide and he can be found on social media, as well as at NurseKeith.com.