By Marcy Phipps, RN 

The first time I took care of a really sick patient in the ICU I was terrified. I didn’t fully trust my skills or instincts and often consulted with the experienced nurses around me. I was surprised when one long-time nurse suggested that tying a knot in a corner of the bed sheet would keep my patient from dying, at least during my shift. But I tried it. After all, what did I have to lose?

I was greatly relieved when my patient made it through the day. It seemed absurd that a knotted bed sheet could have any effect on life or death, but I didn’t entirely dismiss it—at least on some level.

The nurses I work with don’t discuss superstition any more openly than they discuss spirituality or religion. Most of us, however, have certain notions that we recognize and quietly adhere to.  Not a single one of us will say that it’s a “quiet day.” Nobody will pick up a Sunday paper on the way to work. No matter how difficult our assignment, very few of us will change assignments in the middle of consecutive shifts. Putting a chart together in anticipation of an admission is known to result in the admission being reassigned, and a code cart parked near an unstable patient is acknowledged to “ward off evil spirits.”

I would describe my fellow ICU nurses as scientists. We dislike ambiguity and are most comfortable in the presence of clear evidence, concrete numbers, and calculations. Even so, we hold onto our superstitions. Maybe we’re being silly, but perhaps we are acknowledging (or hoping) that there’s more to life than science.

Marcy Phipps is an RN in St. Petersburg, Florida. Her essay, “The Soul on the Head of a Pin,” appeared in the May issue of AJN.


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