It's 3:00 AM in the Emergency Room. A man just staggered in with a wound to the side of his face. The little boy, struggling to keep down his fluids, is nearly knocked over by the man because the man's covered half his face with a towel and can’t see the boy. Every chair in the intake is full, there's a hum of conversation and crying in the air, and there's just been a car pile-up reported on the nearby motorway. You expect many injured people to be arriving soon. It wouldn't be so bad, but there are no beds left. This is your life. You're an ER Nurse.
There's a good reason most TV medical dramas take place in the ER. It's where all the best drama unfolds, where heroism unfolds too fast for medals, and where only the determined make it. No doubt, emergency nursing is not for the faint of heart. This is something to be clear about from the start. It takes a certain kind of nurse to thrive in this high-paced and high-pressure environment, but if you can take the heat you'll find few other lines of work to be as fulfilling.
Good ER nurses don't just "take the heat," they thrive on it. When things are at their worst, they are at their best. ER nurses must be quick thinking, multi-skilled and resilient. They work as part of a close-knit and dynamic team to support and manage their patients. The brass tacks of what ER nurses do is attend to a diverse range of traumas and extreme cases requiring immediate medical intervention. It is an incredibly demanding but equally rewarding and essential role.
Think you can do this work? Here is how you must be built.
Fast: Think and Move Quickly
Those who prefer a gentler pace of work, step aside. As an ER nurse, people will describe you as an adrenaline junkie, someone who thrives in an uncertain, fast paced environment. You're that person who is the calm in the middle of a storm, who remains focused in the face of challenge, and rises to meet it.
ER nurses are on their feet a lot and require a certain level of stamina and agility. It pays to be able to move quickly. ER nurses need to be able to think and problem solve quickly, communicate efficiently and effectively. If you're someone who needs to take a bit more time to ponder, ER nursing might not be right for you.
Resilient: Flexible and Bulletproof
Resilience relates to the ability to adapt to stress and adversity, for an ER nurse, this is critical. There will be highs, saving lives and receiving reward and recognition. On the flip side there will be lows, losing lives, and witnessing tragedies. You will see the full scope of adversity and triumph, and that's only before your lunch break (if you take one).
Without a doubt, an ER nurse needs to be adept enough to deal with the full spectrum of experiences in the ER. These nurses find outlets and proper times to manage the most difficult parts of their job. They develop positive coping skills, meditate, seek council, and then roll up their sleeves to get back in the game. Resilience can be developed but as we mentioned, ER nursing is not for the faint of heart.
Coordinated: Balanced Teamwork and Leadership
People have told you that you have leadership qualities. There is just something about you. You're not bossy, you tend to value the opinion of others, but you can also make the tough choices when there is little time. You know the difference between a situation that calls for the voice of authority and one that calls for cooperation.
ER nurses work closely with other nurses, doctors, radiographers, pathology staff, and orderlies to name a few. The ability to work well as part of a team and to practice exceptional communication skills is non-negotiable. The patient's lives and well being are the most important aspect of an ER nurse's role. This is your guiding light; you have no time for pettiness or ego.
Autonomous: Independent When Necessary
The reality of emergencies is that sometimes you won't have time to ask everyone to weigh in on what to do. ER nursing is one of the few areas of nursing practice where the nurse can make decisions and commence patient management without always needing the doctor in charge to sign off.
As an ER nurse, you are tasked with making preliminary patient assessments and diagnosis. This is one of the reasons ER nursing is a very demanding field. ER nurses really need to know their stuff, so to speak as decisions made in the early stages of a patient's management can determine the outcome. To handle this level of responsibility ER nurses need to be confident, thorough and able to make decisions.
Organised: Like a Closet
Most ER nurses see a high volume of patients and no two will be the same. ER nursing is not a role for those who have a tendency to be absent-minded. A simple slip-up can have life-threatening consequences. ER nurses need to have exceptional attention to details, the ability to manage multiple patients and tasks, all while remembering to breathe. (You're no help if you pass out.)
One thing is for sure, life as an ER nurse is an exciting one. No two days will ever be the same and the challenges will be a-plenty. The question is have you got what it takes to be fast, resilient, coordinated, autonomous, and systematic? Are you the thrill-seeking leader who works well with others, can flex your style, stay super-focused, be organised, and just can't imagine not helping others? If the guy with the towel covering half his face doesn’t bump you, and the little boy doesn’t break your spirit, then you may have found your calling.
Different states and territories have varying rules and regulations with regards to training to become an ER nurse. We recommend checking on your local government health department website for more information. Postgraduate qualifications are not always required but can be beneficial and courses are offered at universities across Australia.