How many of you hear the phrase “self-care” and roll your eyes? I know. Because that’s my reaction, too. As if nurses’ endless task lists can accommodate one more thing: to take care of ourselves. As if we even have time to think about what that phrase could mean.
So, I will not urge you to eat fruits and vegetables, tell you to quit smoking, or exhort you to attend one of those yoga classes your hospital offers at oddly inconvenient times. Seriously? As if.
However, I learned the hard way—and I think breast cancer qualifies as the hard way—that if we don’t care for ourselves, we cannot care for others. When I started in nursing as a second career, I really thought I could be super nurse. With a capital “S.” At the last minute I would agree to work a sixteen-hour shift by adding four hours onto the twelve I was finishing up. I wouldn’t grumble about getting an extra patient, even when I was a new nurse. When the charge nurse went out of her way to give me the most complicated patient on the floor, I never complained.
And then two years ago last fall I was diagnosed with breast cancer, while I was working in home hospice, and I realized I could not, not, work with hospice patients while suddenly and starkly confronting my own mortality. Taking a leave from work was hard; I felt I had failed to live up to what nursing expected of me. And yet, being on leave meant I had time to really think about what I needed for myself.
A few years before, I had begun working out with a personal trainer to help with chronic knee problems. After the diagnosis, I committed more intensely to that work. I decided to ride my bike to and from my radiation treatments—not to show how tough I am, but to feel physically alive while I did them. My husband and I took long walks through Pittsburgh’s forest-like Frick park all during my treatment.
The more exercise I got, the better I slept, and exercise kept my anxiety about cancer from feeling overwhelming, most of the time. I was, literally, caring for myself, and as a result I realized that my health matters, that I matter. It’s a lesson that stuck with me, even as I also grasp the irony that I had to get sick to take my own well-being seriously.
“Self-care” as a slogan—I’m not about that. But self-care as a principle, as something all nurses deserve because of how hard we work and the good we do, sign me up! In the press of demands it can be hard to find the time, whether you like exercise, crafting, cooking, carpentry, or simply getting enough sleep. But just as our work is important, so are we. Today, think of one thing you’d like to do for yourself, and then, as the Nike ad says: Just do it. It could turn into a wonderful life-long habit
Theresa Brown, BSN, RN, FAAN, is Clinical Faculty at the University of Pittsburgh School of Nursing. Her most recent book, The Shift: One Nurse, Twelve Hours, Four Patients’ Lives, was a New York Times bestseller.
She is a frequent contributor to the New York Times and also writes for CNN.com. She has been interviewed on the NPR program “Fresh Air,” and has appeared on “Hardball,” and MSNBC live.
Brown writes and speaks about nursing, health care and end of life care. She has a PhD in English from the University of Chicago. Her kids inspired her to leave academia and pursue nursing. It is a career change she has never regretted.