The life of a nursing assistant is sooooo hard! OMG the poo! Poo to clean non-stop. Poo on the floor, on wheel chairs, in showers, in the bed, on patients and all over the sheets. Poo: the stuff of nightmares. When an emergency occurred such as a patient pulling out one of the tubes or a patient falling in the shower and it seemed that things where their lowest and could not possibly get any worse, the patient would then poo as if to put a cherry on top of it all. Ask any nurse or nursing assistant why their work is stressful and I one-hundred-percent guarantee they will go on to tell you, often with a haunted look in their eyes and a low whisper, “I’ve seen….somethings. Some things only God Himself should know.” And then dive into a long ranting, speech similar to the one I just subjected you to, usually about poo.
Why do we do it? Why do we drag ourselves from our comfy beds to face the day? To face the poo (symbolic or actual)? For many of us, the answer is money.
On my very first day as a nursing assistant, the person training me, Assan, said, “Don’t worry about anything. If it gets hard just think about your pay check.”
I asked Assan, “Seriously, has anyone ever just walked off the job or left this place screaming and crying?”
He answered, “If you do that you would not be the first one, or the second.”
Being in the medical field first as a nursing assistant then as a nurse has been both the most rewarding and most difficult thing that I have ever done. And comparing being a nursing assistant to being a nurse, a nursing assistant’s job is about twice as hard physically although they get paid about half as much. It’s non-stop stress. There are screaming patients who depend on you for their every need such as feeding, cleaning, bathing or, you know, moving. There are harsh words from coworkers who are also stressed out and driven to the brink of what humans can tolerate physically and emotionally. When I woke up the morning after my first day I was so sore I literally could not move. I thought that I needed a nursing assistant for myself. This was a little terrifying for a 24-years-old very in shape woman who did cycling and aerobics classes several times a week (more or less, thank you very much). To regain mobility, I had to go to old-people’s aerobics where we used chairs to gently stretch and circle our weary, fragile limbs.
Later at work when the hard times inevitably arose again, Assan’s advice, “Just think about your paycheck,” became my mantra. Screaming patient? Just think about your paycheck. Missed lunch? Just think about your paycheck. You really need me to come into work tomorrow? Just think about your paycheck. I was basically thinking work=stress=money and those three things became interchangeable in my mind.
On the flip side, I would spend money to try to relieve my stress. When I wanted something very badly that I did not have the money for I would say, “Oh, if I just had X dollars I can have what I want and I’ll be happy.” We all have heard that money cannot buy happiness but when you have money in the bank and unbearable stress today, even if it is your day off, you get the urge to treat yourself hoping that whatever you are buying can help you relax and feel better. I would save up and buy whatever that was which would make me happy for a while until I would want something else and the process would keep repeating. In that pattern I viewed work simply as a means to an end.
What if we lived in a society where there was no money? How would we get people to work? This kind of moneyless society is shown in the popular TV shows and movies of Star Trek. In one of the movies of Star Trek, Star Trek: First Contact Captain Picard and his crew travel back in time from the 24th century to a post-World War III earth and need to explain their society to a person living in the 21st century. Captain Picard states, “The economics of the future is somewhat different. You see, money doesn’t exist in the 24th century. The acquisition of wealth is no longer the driving force in our lives. We work to better ourselves and the rest of humanity.” In this futuristic world there is no money. People work at jobs that they are truly passionate about to better themselves and others. They do not work themselves to death just to attain more and more money, or, conversely, do not underwork and lay around just because they have their basic needs met. Their driving force is their passion. It is such a pure and beautiful vision of what work should be.
Imagine what it would be like if we lived in a society where there was no money. I could say to someone, “I can care for your grandma, I’m a nurse. And while I’m doing that can you watch my kids?” And we could do that just for a change of scenery. Maybe I can find another nurse who is caring for another sick person and we can come together and work together just for the sake of company. And that other nurse could tell her babysitter who is watching her kids to hang out with my babysitter and then the kids could play together and the babysitters could talk. And we would take care of the grandparents and sick people with care and love and know that the babysitters were doing the same for our kids. Somehow in this fantasy we would have food, clothing, and housing brought to you by the technological advances of the future. Also, in the future, hunger, poverty and all major illnesses are conveniently eliminated.
If we could live in an ideal world that I described above where I work for my friend and my friends work for me it would be awesome with love and rainbows but alas, that society does not exist (yet). Obviously, I cannot help it that I live in a society where people work and get money. If I show up to work, the hospital will pay me and if I tell them to stop they will think I am crazy. Plus I need money to pay my bills and feed, clothe, and house my family.
The problem starts when the craving sets in for more and more money. Living in the consumer culture of America and being surrounded by nice things where others always seem to have better, nicer things it’s easy to forget that if we have food, medicine and shelter then we have enough. Having these basics needs met makes us richer than the majority of the world. (See the statistics on the World Health Organization’s website, Who.org.) Anything above that is truly just a luxury. When I crave money and am tempted to overwork to buy this or that I try to remember what one of my favorite thinkers, Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh, said in his book, Being Peace: “So many conditions of happiness are available-more than enough for you to be happy right now. You don’t have to run into the future in order to get more.”
I’m not saying we should live in misery, bath in cold water, give the majority of money to charity and then hoard the rest under a urine-stained, mattress. No. Money itself is morally neutral and things that we buy with them are also morally neutral. It’s our motivations and attitude while we are spending and earning that matter. For example, have you ever gone to work totally stressed out, sick, are working in overtime, and having just one of those days where coworkers are asking you why you didn’t just call in sick? What do you tell them? And what do you tell yourself? You say, “I need the money.” I know I have done this before. Next time, if you ever find yourself doing this again, stop and think about if that statement is really true. It’s probably not. Do you have basic food, clothing, shelter and medicine? Then it’s not true. When you work like that, under the threat of “needing money” we damage ourselves. It damages our health, it damages relationships with coworkers and family members as you interact with them under stress, it damages our emotions making us depressed and anxious, it damages our passion for our work. Although we get the money in the short run, in the long run we pay the ultimate price.
Before I started practicing mindfulness I worked by living on stress and thoughts like, I “need the money” and “just think about your pay check.” I lived and breathed it and fed it with coffee and sugary snacks, stressful, thinking and complaining. This way of being can be highly addictive. If I stop stressing myself out how else can I motivate myself to work? What would be left? What happens when you consciously and deliberately stop the internal chatter of negativity? Well, what you would be left with would be the work itself. For nurses it’s an infinite number of things-the pill passing, the lifting, the feeding, the hand-holding, the charting, the teeth brushing, the laughing, the IV pump beeping, the patient taking their first steps with a walker, the doctor talking, the checking the laboratory values, the left-sided facial droop, the refilling the tube feeding, the patient’s family member arguing, the blood drawing, the CODE, the laughing with coworkers, the checking the patient ID band, the mixing IV medication, the poo-of course-we can’t forget the poo-all those countless things that is nursing that are mundane, horrible, terrible, and beautiful. Strip everything away and really see what you are left with. What you are left with is the work.
The work. What if you traveled to the 24 century Star Trek future? What would you do in a world where all your basic needs of food, clothing, shelter and medicine were met and there was no money? If it were me, I would work as a nurse.