I consider myself a night owl, not a lark or a morning person. Being up late and staying up all night are two very different things in my way of thinking and feeling. I have good energy until about 1 or 2 in the morning, but being up the whole night has not set well with me over the years. Pulling an “all-nighter” in college was a feat I didn’t need to brag about. I tried it once or twice. That was enough. I am not one to stay up all night to finish a good book. Thank goodness my children were good sleepers, so I was not called upon very often for “Mom nights,” with bouts of teething or illness as the exceptions.

Sunrise over Long’s Peak, on the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains in Colorado. Photo by Margie Thumm

My first job as a registered nurse was working the night shift (11 p.m. to 7 a.m.) on a general surgical floor. Back in the 1960s, patients were allowed and able to sleep most of the night, so there were dark and quiet times that lent to difficulty staying awake. 4 a.m. was the worst: the nadir of energy and alertness. Around this hour, I would find my way to the unit kitchen to consume a snack of graham crackers with peanut butter and some cold chocolate milk.  It was when I started to resent the people leaving the hospital as I was coming to work that I knew a change was needed. A combination of day and night shift work compounded this. It wasn’t being up all night as much as it was trying to sleep well during the day or evening. My body clock and psyche just didn’t adjust.

I still admire the people who like and adapt to working what is often called the graveyard shift. I wonder if it is called this because it is dark and quiet or that some people need to drag themselves through the dark and quiet part of the day and feel like they are going to die if they can’t sleep. Hospitals are not necessarily dark and quiet at night these days.

Working the night shift in an intensive care unit was much easier for me, as there was usually constant activity with the lights on. Not great for the patients, but the shift goes quickly for staff with all the stimulation.

One night-shift position that had a reward in store for me was working at Denver General Hospital in the surgical ICU.  I rotated to each shift (eight-hour shifts were the norm at that time) for a week at a time, so for a third of my life I was up all night. This unit was on the north side of the building with large picture windows facing up the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains.

You couldn’t see the ball of sun come up, but the beautiful glow of sunrise as it hit the sky and mountains up to Long’s Peak and beyond was spectacular. I would find brief moments during my patient care to steep my mind and soul in the beauty before me, feeling gratitude for the wonder of the scene. My reward for being up all night.

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