I did it. I called out sick. Besides the chills wracking my body, I am also wracked with guilt. Nurses aren’t supposed to call out sick. We care for the sick. We don’t do illness ourselves. And calling out sick is practically sinful.
Our benefits package includes paid time off for illness or disability. But we’re not supposed to use more than a day or two a year (and only if dying). It’s the cultural norm for healthcare workers to work despite illness. So I kept working for weeks when I should have stayed home, blaming every sneeze on those damn allergies.
When I read this post on the blog Florence is Dead, I couldn’t help but laugh. I blamed the sneezing, running nose, watering eyes, headache, and cough on my “allergies” for months. It was a warm November and December in New Jersey, so it seemed plausible to pass off my symptoms as allergies. That’s what I told myself. Because I am a nurse, and nurses don’t get sick.
But now it is January and the weather is frigid. The chance that pollen is traveling on the wind up to NJ is nil. So I must be sick, but . . .
Not Sick Enough for Calling out Sick
I wasn’t that sick when the symptoms started. But it isn’t acceptable to enter a patient’s room and sneeze, blow, and cough (“sorry, my allergies are really bad today”). So I had to stop the symptoms.
It was the medicines I took to cover up my sneezing, plugged nose and sinuses that did me in.
When the Allegra and neti pot weren’t enough, I added Afrin and Tylenol, then Sudafed, then Benadryl. After a week or so, they didn’t work as well and I had to use them more often. By then I had my original symptoms plus rebound if I didn’t use them – a vicious cycle that is hard to break. I purchased so much Sudafed the pharmacist came over to talk with me, suspicious I was cooking crystal meth. Then he said I had to get a family member to come in and buy it, because I’d exceeded the legal limit for the month.
Meanwhile, Afrin and Sudafed raised my blood pressure, elevated my heart rate, and caused insomnia. Sinus tachycardia became my norm (just ignore the chest pain). I tried not to think about my blood pressure. My nose bled every time I had to blow (and I had to do that often, just to breathe). The medications caused decreased peristalsis (I don’t even want to mention what happens when you have a GI backup and a forceful sneeze comes from your toes out your nose) and urinary retention. Bloating was uncomfortable and the edema from urinary retention made it hard to breathe. Let’s just say I was somewhere between seven and eight:
Being a nurse and all, I know the color should be above the red line. So I drank more, retained more, and drank some more. Still dehydrated, my skin went from dry to parchment paper. I had a raw, red ring around my nose and my lips were chapped. The bags under my eyes went from carry-on to steamer trunk. My throat was dry and the sinus drip made me cough, which set off bronchospasm (I have asthma), but I was afraid to use my inhaler because my heart was already pounding away at 120 bpm already (so says my Fitbit Charge HR). I asked for a pulse oximeter for Christmas (thank you, Ken) to make sure my shortness of breath wasn’t too short.
I still went to work, 13 hours shifts in labor and delivery, hoping I wouldn’t have to push with a patient for a long time (how would I blow my nose?). Thankfully, my patients all delivered in record time, or didn’t deliver, if that was the goal (I love my ante-partum patients!).
My symptoms became uncontrollable, but I did my best to hide it. After all, it was just allergies, or at worst a cold. And my patient was trying her hardest to die on me, and I was trying harder not to let her. How could I complain about my tachycardia when hers was life-threatening at 180+ bpm? Or that my nose was bleeding, again, when I was hanging multiple blood products to keep her alive? Taking care of her, I felt guilty for even thinking I was sick, when she was walking the fine line.
This Leads to That
Well, if you retain a seven to eight color for too long, the inevitable happens. Can anybody say UTI? Working a 13 hour nursing shift with no time to use the restroom, the UTI put me over the edge. I did the unthinkable.
Calling out Sick
I should have done it months ago instead of waiting until I was so sick it would take me days to feel better. But just picking up the phone to call the staffing office made me quake in my Danskos. I know how hard it is to staff a unit. I know how hard it is to work short. We all hate it and now I’d done it to the other nurses. Sick, in bed and browsing stuff on my iPad, I was reminded of why I felt guilty.
The Facebook plea for help was out, and I was responsible for my coworkers having a crap day. To be fair, it is the fastest way to reach any available nurse. But it didn’t help the guilt I was already feeling. It’s the kind of guilt that rivals what you get from an Italian mother and the Catholic church.
However, the deed was done and I had to make the best of it. Cipro for the UTI and the neti pot whenever I needed it. The rest I dropped cold turkey, and waited for the rebound to subside. Mostly I slept and drank tea, with a hot toddy at night to help me sleep.
The next time a nurse calls out sick and we’re working short, I won’t complain. Because I know how hard it is to pick up the phone and do it, and just how sick that nurse must feel to need to do the unthinkable: call out sick.