Night Owls

Graphic with the words "night shift"
You knew it was a possibility the second you enrolled in your respiratory care program: working the nightshift. But amid all the excitement of starting school, studying for tests, learning in the lab, and completing your clinicals, it was easy to put it on the back burner.

But here you are, getting ready to graduate, and the only jobs you’ve been offered so far are (drum roll please) on the nightshift! “Yuck,” think you. “I need my sleep.”

Well, you aren’t the first respiratory therapist to be faced with the nightshift, and those who have come before you have some great tips for making the most of it. We polled members of the AARC’s Adult Acute Care, Neonatal-Pediatrics, and Sleep sections to get the specifics, and three main themes emerged—

1. Building skills

The nightshift is a great place to build your skills in respiratory care. “Nightshift gives you more opportunity to be the expert,” says Leslie Bell, BA, RRT, who has worked the nightshift at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Fort Thomas, KY, for two years now. “There are less doctors around and you are relied on to know and share your skills.”

There are fewer interruptions too, says Nick Velotta, RRT, a 20 year veteran of the nightshift at the Cleveland Clinic in Cleveland, OH. “We don’t have to fight PT/OT/MD/CXR/food trays, etc., for time with our patients.”

For a self-proclaimed “trauma junkie” like Rena Laliberte, RRT, CPFT, the nightshift offers the opportunity to see the most exciting cases as well. “When emergencies happen it is a fabulous way to learn and be the hero,” says the RT at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit, MI, who worked nights for years before shifting to an educator’s position on days. “All the really interesting ER cases come in at night.”

The important thing is to take advantage of the autonomy that goes along with working nights, says Michael Houston, RRT-NPS, an RT at Our Lady of the Lake Regional Medical Center in Baton Rouge, LA, who worked the nightshift for 14 out of his 22 years in respiratory care. “Learn how to talk to docs and nurses. Be a part of the team, not a bystander, and use the autonomy to create better patient care.”

2. You have your days to yourself

People who work days often struggle to take care of their everyday responsibilities at home. The nightshift solves that problem. ‘I went to nightshift after coming back from maternity leave and realizing I never saw my baby,” says Donna Tanner, RRT, another RT at the Cleveland Clinic. It’s been nearly 14 years since she made that decision, and she still loves the nightshift for the chance it gives her to attend her daughter’s school and sporting events.

Tina Lovings, RRT-ACCS, who now serves as quality assurance/performance improvement coordinator at Wake Forest Baptist Health in Winston Salem, NC, worked the nightshift for 16 years before transitioning to days last year and says she went on nights for much the same reason. “It simply fit my family schedule better. I didn’t have to miss anything. I was always available to do school stuff with my son.”

The structure of many nightshift positions is a boon as well, says Mark D. Eley, MS, RRT-NPS, RRT-SDS, who works nights at the Sleep Center at Community Hospital in Anderson, IN. ”Many health care nightshift careers are structured to be three 12 hour shifts per week or 72 hours per two week pay period. This provides for more overall time off than a standard 40 hour per week dayshift job.”

3. Getting enough Zzzzz’s

Sleep can be a problem. “You need to be proactive in planning sleep,” says Kenny Miller, MEd, RRT-ACCS, RRT-NPS, AE-C, an educational coordinator at Lehigh Valley Health Network in Allentown, PA, who worked the nightshift from 1978–1996.

“Protect your sleep,” says Jessica Gremmel, BS, RRT-NPS, a nightshifter at Saint Luke’s Hospital of Kansas City in Kansas City, MO. “Sometimes you even need more because it’s so hard to sleep well against your circadian rhythm.”

David Wolfe, MSEd, RRT-SDS, RST, RPSGT, an educational coordinator at Crouse Hospital in Syracuse, NY, who spent eight years on the nightshift urges good sleep hygiene. “Limit caffeine, create a dark and quiet sleep environment.”

It’s important to set strict boundaries with family members regarding your sleep as well, says Mary Jo Eyler, BSRC, RRT-NPS, AE-C, an RT at Samaritan Albany General Hospital in Albany, OR, who has logged 20 of her 32 years in the profession on the nightshift—and strict boundaries with yourself too. “Don’t try to squeeze in one more chore, or one more chapter in that book. Put down the electronic devices before bed.”

Of course, even under the best conditions, coping with a change in sleeping habits can be hard. Says Frank Camuti, RRT, who works the nightshift at St. John Medical Center in Tulsa, OK, “When we went to 12 hours I began having trouble with fragmented sleep on my nights off. Anxiety over lack of sleep only made it worse.” Instead of shooting for a “full night’s sleep” now he gets up and does something when he wakes up, like going to an all-night gym or reading for a few hours, then catches up on sleep via a power nap at some point during the day.

You might just fall in love…

For some people, the nightshift is just a rite of passage they have to get through before going to days. But you never know—you might decide to stick around a while too. Says Cindy Sparkman, BS, RRT-NPS, adult care coordinator at the University of Utah Hospital in Salt Lake City, UT, who worked the nightshift for the first ten years of her career, “I loved nightshifts, the hospital is quiet. There are not as many physicians, visitors, or office staff, and the traffic is decreased throughout the hospital.”

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