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When Cathy Alvarez was five years old, she began taking care of her grandmother who had broken her leg and moved into her family’s basement to recuperate. “She always called me her little nurse,” Alvarez recalls. Although she always knew she wanted to be a nurse, about five years into her career, Alvarez, who was juggling work in a cardiac step-down unit with care for her grandfather in hospice, found herself “completely burning out” and contemplating leaving the profession.
Alvarez remembers not being able to sleep at night, anticipating the day with dread, waking up with a panicky feeling, and leaving work emotionally and physically exhausted. “I used to come home after working 12 hours and I’d say to my husband ‘Oh my God, I haven’t gone to the bathroom all day,’ and he’s like ‘What is the matter with you?’ and I’m like ‘I can’t go to the bathroom if someone’s having chest pains.’”
Then she found holistic nursing, which promoted the idea that “you have to care for yourself in order to care for other people. And I was really mind-blown by that.” She became a board certified holistic nurse and now, twenty years into the field, her focus is on self-care practices for nurses. In 2019, she and Pam Mulligan, a cardiac surgical critical care nurse, launched Replenish at Work, a practice for nurses seeking to mitigate stress and avoid burnout.
“Every time I teach nurses about self-care, I’ll ask them what do you do during the day to take care of yourself and the three things every nurse says is, ‘I try to eat, I try to drink, and I try to go to the bathroom.’ And I will always say are those really self-care practices? They’re actually basic human needs.”
Alvarez and Mulligan recognized that substantial, sustainable breaks aren’t likely to happen in a clinical setting so they developed what they refer to as “micro restorative practices” that can be done in five or 10 minutes. Key to the program’s success is that it is completely customized. “It’s not saying ‘Go do yoga.’ If you don’t like yoga, you’re not going to do it,” Alvarez explains. Some find exercise therapeutic. For others, it may be meditation, music, eating more mindfully, even just stepping outside for a breath of fresh air. “Because we’re both nurses, we understand that it’s not one size fits all.”
Speaking with Regis College Assistant Professor Lawana Brown, Alvarez frames self-care as a sort of opposite to self-absorption. “Self-compassion is so important [so] that we can give compassionate care for others.”