Hospital NursesI recently had the misfortune to be a patient at a large Chicago hospital for five long days. Being in the hospital is miserable, even when you’re lucky enough to end up in one known for its exceptional patient care. I can personally attest that if it weren’t for the dedication of my nurses and nursing assistants that I would have had a much worse time of it. Here’s what I learned about the daily job functions of nurses and nursing assistants, and why they are such important members of hospital staffs.

Hospital nurses are responsible for patient care.

While I was in the hospital, I had a doctor, a “team” of residents, and a specialist on my case. I saw them all once a day as they made their rounds, usually between nine and eleven in the morning. If it weren’t for the nurses and nursing assistants, I could have easily gone 22 hours without seeing another medical professional to attend to my needs.

Nurses are responsible for so much of patient care, including administering medication and performing check-ups to make sure that a patient hasn’t worsened. I came to depend on my nurses as the real people who monitored my condition, and I learned to alert them whenever something changed. I found out that in a medical emergency, an actual doctor is going to be the last person who shows up in your room.

Hospital nurses provide physical comfort.

While I was flat on my back, my nurses made sure to ask frequently if I needed pain medication. I needed a new IV site every day or so, and when my arms looked like they had run out of veins, a nurse with 38 years experience came to see if she find a new place to poke me. If someone else had unconfidently started fishing for a vein, I would have been in for a world of hurt. Another nurse brought me an icepack, and I didn’t even have to tell her I was in pain. Even the nursing assistants made sure I had fresh ice water in my pitcher and offered to bring me food in the middle of the night.

Hospital nurses provide emotional comfort.

More of all, I appreciated that if I needed anything, all I had to do was ask. My nurses genuinely wanted me to be comfortable and responded quickly to calls. Even though I was pretty out of it for the first couple of days, they always introduced themselves at shift changes and wrote their names and hours on a board in my room so I would know who was taking care of me. They took the time to explain tests and medications and what would happen next. When I felt like I might be stuck in that bed forever, it was their kindness that made me feel like I could hang in there.

The nursing shortage is very real.

I’m very, very lucky that I was in a good hospital. Even so, I could tell my nurses and nursing assistants were spread thinly across the patients on my floor. I sometimes had to wait for routine procedures like getting IV antibiotics when other patients had more pressing needs. While I never felt slighted or ignored, I could tell that the hospital badly needed more nursing staff.

We’ve all heard news stories about the so-called nursing shortage. The sad truth is that there are far more positions than registered nurses to fill them. There has never been a time to earn a nursing degree and begin a career. While nurses can work in many different settings, about 59% of them do work in hospitals. The average salary for a nurse was $65,130 in 2008.

If you’re interested in a career as a nurse or a nursing assistant, check out these nursing colleges that offer associates degrees in nursing, bachelor’s degrees in nursing, or nursing diplomas.