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While the Cedar Valley sleeps, Sandy Jorgenson is wide awake, keeping watch on the sick, the injured and the lonely.

The third-shift nurse has worked at UnityPoint Health-Allen Hospital for 30 years. Every one of those years has been on the night shift, save for a brief stint on days that she jokes was a momentary lapse in judgment.

“It was probably about eight months, and I didn’t like it,” Jorgenson said.

She’s one of hundreds of Cedar Valley nurses in hospitals and nursing homes who tend to patients in the wee hours, and one of 15 million Americans who work a permanent night shift or regularly rotate in and out of night shifts, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

At first, working the night shift was a practicality for Jorgenson.

“When I first started it was just me and my three kids; it was easier with a family. I had a college kid who would sleep at my house at night,” she noted. “After I got remarried, it just worked out to have one parent in the house at all times.”

Her kids have grown and flown the nest, but Jorgenson has stayed on third shift.

“I always tell people that it’s just as busy (as the day shift), but it’s a quiet busy. There’s not family or X-ray or physical therapy coming to take the patient away from you. You have better access to your patients and can give them a little more time. Sometimes they just want to talk. It’s a little more one-on-one.”

Nurse Dan Boese, who works three 7 p.m.-7 a.m. shifts one floor below Jorgenson, concurs.

“On thirds, you are busy but you have more time to sit down and talk with patients, really get to know them,” he said.

Hospice patients hold a special place in Jorgenson’s heart.

“It is so important that you get to know them, that they get that dignity and pain relief. It’s so important that they get that dignity and pain relief. I think people tend to have a little more pain at night because there’s no distraction from families. They start feeling overwhelmed with the pain. My goal for them is pain-free sleep.”

Boese had the opportunity to move to a day shift, but declined because of the close-knit staff on third shift.

“On our floor, we take more acute patients — cardiac, kidney, respiratory — we have just about everything. I think we all realize that our patients are pretty sick; if one person needs help the rest of us will be there. There’s six people overnight. If a patient starts to decline, your co-workers on the floor are all you have. Everybody is always trying to help.”

Leslie Farley, a registered nurse at Covenant Medical Center, has worked the night shift for 14 years “and I don’t intend to change. I started doing it and I never looked back.”

There’s something special about the overnight hours, she said.

“For the most part, things are calmer,” she said. “Patients let their hair down; that’s the time they really need someone to talk to. You find time to spend with them. Maybe they just need someone to give them a hug and just hear them out. They need a shoulder to cry on, and we can help them put things in perspective.”

Extra time with patients doesn’t mean overnight nurses aren’t busy, though.

“There’s always something going on,” Farley said. “The call lights for assistance are constantly going off. The hospital never sleeps. And that’s what we’re here for.”

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Lifestyles and Features Editor

Lifestyles Editor for The Courier

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