The Nurse and the Oxygen Mask

When you get on an airplane, remember how the flight attendant will demonstrate how to put on your oxygen mask in case of a sudden drop in cabin pressure? Do you also remember how she or he will always tell you that you should always put your own mask on first before helping someone else who’s dependent on you?

Why do they tell you to put your mask on first? Why is it important to do that? Is it, perhaps, because you’d be worthless to your panic-stricken dependent child if you desaturated and fell unconscious to the floor while putting on his mask before your own?

Something tells me that this “oxygen mask” idea relates to nurses. Can you see how?

Nurses love to care. We love to be caring, and we love to be needed. Some of thrive on being needed, and we live for what we do. Some of us may only display that caring at work, but I bet a lot of us are needed at home too, and maybe even in our neighborhoods and communities. It feels good to be so needed and so important. But we pay a price.

Nurses who spend all of their time caring for others but not for themselves run a great risk of burnout and compassion fatigue. Nurses who live to care for others may often forget to care for themselves, burning the wick at both ends until there’s no wick left.

When a nurse has no wick left, she or he is jaded, angry, tired, burned out, and moves into that space beyond caring. Patients become numbers and diagnoses, and their faces and identities fade into the background.

The nurse with no wick left has little patience for her patients, but also for her coworkers, colleagues, family, friends, children, pets and home. She or he also has little or no patience for herself. Her needs are buried below mountains of shame, anger and the ignoring of basic necessities: rest, relaxation, leisure, fun, self-care. This burned out nurse is burnt to a crisp, and sometimes she or he is so far gone that she or he is blind what even happened, if they even recognize it at all.

So, nurses, put that oxygen mask on first. Take care of yourself, be true to your needs, allow yourself the time to rest, rejuvenate and renew yourself. Yes, you can care until the cows come home, but eventually, without adequate self-care, your caring becomes a shell of what it used to be.

Nurse, the first person to care for is yourself. And when you’re well-oxygenated and care for, the rest just comes naturally.

About Keith

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Keith Carlson is a holistic career coach for nurses, award-winning nurse blogger, writer, podcaster, speaker, author, and popular career columnist.

With two decades of nursing experience, Keith deeply understands the issues faced by 21st-century nurses. Keith’s two podcasts, RNFM Radio and The Nurse Keith Show, offer inspiration and practical support to nurses seeking to create meaningful, satisfying lives and careers.

Keith’s message of savvy career management and professional satisfaction reaches tens of thousands of nurses worldwide. Keith can be found on many social media platforms, as well as at