If you ask night shift nurses they will tell you the truth: There are times we don’t remember driving home from work. It’ s not a case of being asleep behind the wheel. It’s more like getting into a zone or trance-like state. It’s night shift’s dirty little secret.
For me, the way it happens is I get into my car, drive out of the hospital parking lot, and the next thing I know I’m pulling into my driveway. It’s eerie. I’ll if remember the drive if another driver cuts me off or something like that. I’ve never run a red light. I’d know this, because California drivers are fast on their horns. The slightest traffic infraction or lingering at a green light for more than a second will trigger the blare of a horn or a shouted expletive from another driver. That would get my attention. It’s like conscious sedation.
Some night shift nurses nap in their cars in the hospital parking lot before driving home. I never have. Instead, I’ll turn up the radio and if the weather’s good, roll down a window for fresh air.
This morning though, the weather’s not so good. It’s chilly, so I leave the windows rolled up. I turn on the radio, start the car, and drive home.
In my drive way, I use the remote to open the garage door and park the car inside. I turn off the radio, and then close my eyes for just a minute before going inside.
“Wake up! Wake up!”
The sound of someone pounding on the car’s windows wakes me abruptly. Through the glass I hear muffled voices:
“Tom, what if she’s trying to kill herself?”
“Well, if she is, she’s not very good at it!”
Oh God, it’s my elderly neighbors, Tom and Vera. I’ve fallen asleep in my car and the engine’s still running! Oh God!
Now that I’m awake, Tom puts his arm around Vera, who’s standing on the driver’s side of my car. Concern draws deep lines to their already wrinkled faces. I turn off the engine, and roll down the window.
“Niki, are you all right? Tom, call 911.” directs Vera
“911 don’t come out if no ones hurt, Vera. Are you hurt? Tom sticks his head partially through the open window, further assessing my condition. “You haven’t been drinking have you?”
“No! I worked last night. I’m fine. I just fell asleep in my car. I’m sorry I frightened you.”
“The garage door was open, and your car was running. I got Tom, and we found you slumped over the steering wheel. We thought you hit your head or something,” explained Vera, still visibly shaken.
“You were drooling,” comments Tom.
Note: All night shift nurses drool when we fall asleep. Try staying awake while rocking a baby in a bedside chair in a dark patient room during a twelve-hour shift on a slow night. Welcome to pediatric and neonatal nursing.
“No, I’m fine really. I’m sorry I worried you. Thank you for checking on me.”
I am so embarrassed.
Tom and Vera walk slowly across the lawn to their home. I gather my tote and enter my house as the garage door closes behind me.
As if scaring my neighbors isn’t bad enough, Maddie’s algebra book glares at me accusingly from the kitchen counter. She forgot it there when I took her to Simon and Amber’s house yesterday. I hope she didn’t need it.
It’s time to move to day shift.