What Does a Critical Care Nurse Do?

Jul 29, 2020
Lauren Rivera, RNC-NIC

What are the typical responsibilities of a Critical Care Nurse?

Critical Care Nurses, also known as ICU Nurses, treat patients with acute illnesses and life-threatening medical issues. According to the American Association of Critical Care Nursing, Critical Care Nurses account for about 37% of nurses in hospitals. They span across emergency departments, intensive care units, step-down units, cardiac care units, telemetry units, pediatric intensive care units, and neonatal intensive care units. 

Critical Care Nurses must have the ability to think and react quickly in stressful situations, as patients in intensive care units are often unstable and their status can change at any minute. The nurse must remain calm in order to carry out interventions and immediately respond to the patient’s needs. 

Typical responsibilities of a Critical Care Nurses may include:

  • Monitoring and evaluating vital signs through assessment/cardiorespiratory monitors
  • Administering medications- orally/intravenously
  • Infusing blood products 
  • Maintaining airways/managing complicated respiratory equipment
  • Suctioning patients/caring for the ventilated patient
  • Blood draws and monitoring patients labs
  • Total care of the unconscious patient

What should nurses entering this specialty expect to encounter on a regular basis?

Critical Care Nurses should expect to provide total comprehensive care for their patients. Patients in intensive care need constant monitoring, which requires the nurse to be alert to even the slightest change. Nurses typically have one to two patients in the adult intensive care population and one to three patients in the pediatric or neonatal population. 

Critical Care Nurses pay a vital role in assessing and advocating for their patients. They should anticipate serving as a part of the multidisciplinary team, regularly participating and leading patient rounds. Critical Care Nurses are also the liaison between the patient and their family.

iv drop hanging on rack critical care nursing

My experience as a Critical Care Nurse

With over 12 years of experience as a neonatal intensive Care Nurse (NICU), I care for the most fragile patients in the hospital. My patients range from micro preemies who weigh less than a pound to full-term babies who require monitoring. I attend high-risk deliveries, resuscitate infants as needed, and admit them to the NICU. NICU nursing is extremely challenging, but also highly rewarding.

What are some of the benefits of working as a Critical Care Nurse?

Critical care nursing is a fast-paced and exciting career. Patient acuity is heavy, but patient load is less. Critical Care Nurses are often well-respected among physicians, and nurses experience the sense of satisfaction that comes with being a part of the multidisciplinary team. Critical Care Nurses often build strong relationships with patients and their families, and support many people during the most difficult times of their lives. 

My favorite part of being a NICU nurse is watching a one-pound baby who was fighting for their life go on to become a chubby and healthy baby who gets to go home. I often maintain contact with families and enjoy watching their child grow and thrive. 

baby in NICU holding adult hand critical care nurse

What are some of the not-so-great parts of working as a Critical Care Nurse? 

Critical care nursing is not for the faint of heart. Patients are often acutely ill and require constant monitoring. A Critical Care Nurse's brain always has to be “on” and alert, which means there is no room for error. 

Critical care nursing can be physically exhausting and emotionally draining, which often takes a toll on the nurse’s own mental health. One particularly harsh reality of being a Critical Care Nurse is the potential to experience the death of a patient.

NICU nursing often brings a great deal of anxiety, as the role involves attending deliveries and overseeing the stability of a patient. It took me a good two years to become confident in my ability to assume responsibility for an infant’s life and reduce anxiety over the unknown. 

Share your favorite piece of advice for nursing new grads or students looking to become a Critical Care Nurse

With well newborn experience as a nurse extern, I was fortunate enough to go into NICU nursing immediately. It was the right choice for me, as most other areas in the hospital will not prepare you for the NICU. If I had moved forward with adult critical care, I would definitely choose to work on a med-surg unit first or emergency department to gain experience with different disease processes and build the foundation of necessary skills. 

Nurses seeking to advance their career can become certified as a Critical Care Nurse by the American Association of Critical Care Nurse (AACN). Nurses are able to take the exam after working a minimum of two years in their critical care specialty, and must renew every three years. A CCRN can care for adult, pediatric, or neonatal patients, and each specialty has their own specific certification exam. 

I am both a certified NICU nurse (RNC-NIC) and a certified breastfeeding counselor (CBC). These certifications allowed me to feel accomplished as an expert in my specialty, and also helped significantly during my job search. 

My biggest piece of advice is to take advantage of every opportunity that presents itself. If possible, apply for a nurse externship. This will prepare you for hospital nursing after graduation and help get your foot in the door. 

Make sure to always ask questions; it’s the best way to learn. Seek out a hospital that offers a mentor program, as this will ensure that you always have a go-to person that can support you. Above all, have patience. Remember that it takes years to gain enough experience to become a confident nurse!

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