When nursing burned me out, TikTok became a lifeline

Now I have millions of followers—and a way to cope

In 2020, I graduated from nursing school in Quebec. Just a couple of weeks later, I found myself working in a hospital in the middle of a global pandemic. I had so much to learn: the proper ways of administering medication and wound dressing, department-specific routines and, on top of that, all the new COVID-specific safety regulations that were being introduced every day. I was also helping extremely sick patients communicate with their loved ones via phone or video chat because, at that time, many hospitals weren’t accepting visitors. On several occasions, I had to give bad news to tearful, devastated families through a screen and say, “I’m so sorry that you can’t be here right now.” I kept asking myself: Am I capable of carrying the lives of multiple people in my hands? Am I really made for this?

It pained me to see patients confined to their rooms. I tried to cheer them up by making them laugh, but I still felt their sadness deep within me. I was also exhausted from working long hours in a short-staffed hospital; I was in desperate need of a distraction. Around that time, TikTok was getting really popular. Watching people dance on reels became a way of escaping reality. I came across a video of a guy asking his viewers to reply with a job that was undervalued and underpaid. I filmed my own video during a break in my shift. I held up my badge, which read: RN. I didn’t actually mean to post the video; I did it by accident. Then I went back to work. 

READ: State of Emergency: Inside Canada’s ER Crisis

When I got home the next day—it was a super-long shift—my friends and family told me I had gone viral. I didn’t know what that meant. The only definition of “viral” I knew was illness-related. When I logged into my TikTok account, I saw that my accidental video had garnered more than a million views and upwards of 100,000 likes. Part of me was in shock; the other part of me was excited to be getting my 15 minutes of fame, despite my usual introversion. I assumed it was a one-time thing.

I didn’t post another video until five or six months later, after a really rough shift. I was still juggling too many patients and still questioning whether I was really cut out to be a nurse. I went to the unit’s bathroom and cried, trying to calm my heart rate with breathing exercises. I thought about how many people could probably relate to the on-the-job breakdown I’d just experienced and decided to film a video about it when I got home—a funny one. I re-enacted my tears and deep breathing, but in an over-the-top ridiculous way. Within hours, that video had a million views and a ton of supportive comments. I wondered whether people were just watching to make fun of me, but there were enough positive and encouraging comments that I figured I might as well keep doing it.

I started posting a video a week after that. (I didn’t have time to do more.) All of them went viral: the one about how everything seems to go wrong just minutes before a shift is about to end; the one about how desperately nurses need a glass of wine; all the ones of me crying. There is so much suffering in my profession right now, so I try to keep things lighthearted—even if the topics themselves are heavy. I recently made a video about how nurses are constantly asked to work extra hours. In it, I sang Whitney Houston’s I Will Always Love You, but changed the original words to “I refuse this OT.” We could all use a good laugh.

RELATED: I was a nurse for 10 years in Scotland. So why can’t I get certified in Canada?

I’ve gotten so many amazing messages from followers. I once received an Instagram message from someone who’d spent months in the hospital undergoing chemotherapy. They said my content was showing that hospitals don’t always have to be scary places, because nurses become like a family to you. Another follower, a nurse, told me I had described their entire day in my video. Like me, they had a stressful workday and cried. My video made them realize they weren’t alone. In fact, my videos have created a community of 3.7 million people—the kind of community I’ve been searching for since I started nursing.

MORE: I began my ER nursing career in Ontario. Burnout and low pay led me to leave for the U.S.

Last July, I transferred to my hospital’s emergency department after two years spent working on a surgical floor. I was completely run down and thought moving to a different environment might help me get back on track. The new job was exciting, but I was still exhausted. I told my manager I thought I should see a professional. The doctor I saw explained that my symptoms were clear signs of burnout, and that I needed to take some time away from work to take care of myself. In December, I went on mental-health leave. 

Nursing is still my greatest passion, and I will go back to work, when I’m ready. In the meantime, I’m more active on TikTok than ever. I try to post as consistently as possible—about the perils of night shifts, working on a full moon and the bonus of work besties. I don’t consider TikTok a job; it’s more like therapy than work. (In fact, my therapist encourages me to post.) When people leave comments saying, “Hey John, I’ve been through this. Be strong!” it helps me come to terms with what I’ve been through. In a way, I love TikTok for the same reason I love nursing. Being part of someone else’s healing makes me feel better. On TikTok, it feels like I’m nursing all these different people around the world, in a way. I’m so thankful for them.

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