Burnout is a well-known phenomenon in the nursing profession, and amid the highs and lows of a 30-year nursing career, Temple University Hospital staff nurse Lisa Antenucci is as familiar with its signs and symptoms as any condition she’s treated.

But when it affects your outlook, it can contribute to long-term concerns; the fact that burnout can be a blind spot to people who are suffering from it only makes it that much harder to resolve.

“You almost don’t know you’re in it,” Antenucci said. “In the health care profession, we’re not good at taking care of ourselves at all.”

From specialty to shift selection, the variety inherent in the nursing profession and the gamut of opportunities it affords are usually enough to help any nurse break out of a slump. For Antenucci, the challenges of self-care were most easily met with physical activity. A lifelong runner who graduated from half-marathons to full marathons to CrossFit training (and then certified instruction) a few years ago, she’s long used exercise as an antidote to the stress of work. She recently took up yoga. Antenucci discovered that pairing yoga with travel to a variety of far-flung locales has only amplified its restorative effects.

“It was a couple years ago when we had that real bad winter,” she recollects. “My girlfriend started posting pictures online, and I said, ‘Wherever you are, I need to be there.’ She said, ‘I’m at a yoga retreat in Guatemala.’ ”

After a trip to Central America, Antenucci booked another to Vietnam, and last year began talking about Belize as a future destination. She said travel has really helped by removing her from the fast-paced hospital environment and allowing her the breathing room to refocus her intention toward self-healing. It’s also provided an opportunity for novel experiences like zip-lining and stand-up paddleboarding, the impact of which has been visible to herself and her coworkers.

“Some of these people know me as a sarcastic, miserable person,” Antenucci said. “I always see the negative in things. [But] in every picture from vacation, I have this ear-to-ear grin.” “[My coworkers are] seeing a whole different side of me they don’t see because we don’t socialize out of work. They see I can be happy and get into
different things.”

Antenucci said the twin pursuits of yoga and travel have afforded her a chance for greater self-reflection. When she’s tempted to pick up overtime, she said she’s had to learn to say no. Antenucci already keeps a part-time trauma shift at a nearby hospital, which, in addition to her training in cardiac critical care, open-heart surgeries, and transplants, has broadened her horizons, but added more to her normal workload. Despite the needs of her department and the tendency for hospitals to be short-staffed, she said she’s internalized the message of self-care as an order of priority thanks to her travels.

“You’ve got to take care of yourself before you can take care of anybody else,” Antenucci said. “You get stuck in cycles, and you do forget that. You really have to think, and you really have to be in touch with yourself, and at 51, I’m just starting to learn that.”

Fighting off the effects of burnout have also helped Antenucci crystallize the virtues of her profession, from flexibility to salary to the opportunities of making a difference in the lives of injured and ill patients. Her goal is to leave those for whom she cares in better shape than she found them, which remains a challenge when they don’t respond to treatment “and it’s your job to be on the ball why that’s happening.”

“Our patients are so sick because they’ve [often] been turned down by many other institutions for surgery,” Antenucci said. “You really have to be on your game. The system is getting so bad nowadays fighting with insurance companies, I feel like I spend 10 hours of a 12-hour shift fighting to get my patients taken care of.”

Antenucci turns to her coworkers in solidarity, and for back-up. She enjoys camaraderie with the veteran nurses in her unit as well as the opportunity of working with newly hired staff. The job provides novelty, and despite the consistent pressures, Antenucci believes it’s her calling, which provides no small degree of comfort as she considers her peers.

Beyond that, medicine is a family pursuit, too. Growing up, Antenucci thought she might become a veterinarian; her older sister is a doctor, and her daughter is currently amidst a career change into nursing. After an ROTC stint to pay for college and an army officer’s commission during Desert Storm, she relocated from San Antonio to Philadelphia. For someone whose career has taken a lot of twists and turns, Antenucci finds that it still yields no small degree of daily excitement.

“Every day is an adventure,” she said. “I tell young people, ‘Please don’t wait until you’re 40 or 50 years old to go with your heart and your mind. Don’t do things the way you think everybody wants you to do it.’ ”

“Nursing is a fabulous profession, and I know so many people my age who hate their jobs,” Antenucci said. “I would do it all again. I really like what I do.”