How to Become an ICU Nurse – Everything You Need to Know

How to Become an ICU Nurse

If you have the drive to help people by changing or saving their lives, then becoming an ICU nurse could be a potential career choice for you. But ICU nurses are a special make of people — not everyone can handle the pressure of an intensive care unit and the chance to save a life.

But if you believe you have what it takes to fill the shoes of a real-life hero, here’s what you need to know about pursuing a career as an ICU nurse.

What is the Exact Role of an ICU Nurse?

These types of nurses are absolutely crucial to the successful operation and management of any hospital and most importantly, the intensive care unit.

The ICU’s primary focus is to take care of people who have suffered some form of trauma, a life-threatening accident, had major surgery, organ failure, heart attack, and stroke. The ICU also looks after cancer patients who have reached a very critical point in their care.

The role of an ICU nurse is to oversee the care of a patient in an ICU unit by continually reading and monitoring their vital signs. Often times, a patient’s life falls into their hands. If their vitals are deteriorating rapidly, it’s the ICU nurse’s job to notify the right person, in the best time-frame. In some cases, an ICU nurse will have to take an intervention into their own hands. They are also required to speak with family members and doctors on a regular basis.

Most patients who go into ICU are in critical condition. Some of the most common conditions an ICU nurse will face include:

  • Post-operative patients who have received an organ transplant or open-heart surgery
  • Trauma patients who are recovering from near-fatal incidences such as a car accident, shooting, or assault
  • Infectious patients who are suffering from dangerous conditions such as sepsis
  • Stroke patients who are in need of post-operative care and physical therapy
  • Cancer patients admitted for recovery after intensive chemotherapy, transplant surgery, or infection

The role of an ICU nurse is an important and stressful job — no doubt about it. But it can also be very rewarding. Learning to handle the stress of a critical moment and find your focus is essential.

Critical Traits of an ICU Nurse

So, in order to become an ICU nurse what kind of person do you need to be? Some of the over-arching qualities include:

  • An ability to handle the pressure of life-and-death situations
  • Being a good communicator
  • Being a true team player
  • Being able to multi-task
  • Having commitment and dedication to working long shifts
  • Attention-to-detail
  • A knack for critical thinking
  • Above-par time management skills

Aside from these personal traits, it’s also important that an ICU nurse is in good physical health. This job requires you to be on your feet for many hours a day, so physical stamina is part-and-parcel of the position.

Dealing with Difficult Situations

The atmosphere of an ICU unit can be super-charged one minute, and relatively somber the next. Being able to separate yourself emotionally from this vast range in work atmosphere is crucial.

Ultimately, an ICU nurse has to remember how important their job is and not let their own personal feelings come in the way of a life-and-death decision. But this is not to say you cannot feel or express empathy. In fact, this is another important part of the job. ICU nurses often deal with traumatic, end-of-life situations. You should be able to offer both psychological support and empathy to family members.

The same goes for applying or withholding medical care when a patient has a living will in place. If their wish is to not be kept on life support, it is your job to obey their wishes. This may feel like a completely unnatural part of the job. It goes against everything nurses are taught about saving lives. But if this is a legal wish, it must be honored.

Salary, Education and Nursing Skills

According to national data, the median annual salary for an ICU nurse is approximately $75,119 as of April 2020. However, this amount does range between $67,691 and $81,623. ICU nurses are also privy to a host of benefits including health insurance, paid leave, and 401k plans.

In order to prepare for a long-lasting and truly fulfilling career as an ICU nurse, you will have to meet a number of different qualifications, first. Ideally, you will need to study a Bachelor of Science Degree in Nursing (BSN). This should be with an accredited university, including specialized training in life-threatening conditions.

However, a BSN is not always necessary. You can also study an associate’s degree in nursing (ADN) and will have to pass the NCLEX-RN national exam that qualifies you as a registered nurse. You will also need to gain experience working in a critical care setting, then take an exam to become a critical care registered nurse (CCRN).

Some of the highly specialized, additional skills an ICU nurse should hold include:

  • Advanced cardiac life support
  • Life support
  • Trauma care
  • Telemetry
  • Critical care
  • Cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR)
  • Patient and family education
  • Discharge planning

Essentially, a bachelor’s degree lays the important groundwork for a career in nursing. Much of this additional skill is learned through additional courses and most importantly, real-life work experience.

Build a Fulfilling Career in Nursing

If you’re interested in a career as an ICU nurse, Stability Healthcare is here to help you take your nursing career to the next level.

If you’re already a trained and experienced ICU nurse, we also offer exciting travel nursing opportunities to help broaden your experience and knowledge. If you’re interested in a new career challenge, explore our travel nursing jobs for more…


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