Pillow Stat! I’m saving a life here.

If you aren’t already aware, we have the pleasure of interviewing Theresa Brown, RN, on RN.FM Radio tonight at 9 PM EST. Theresa is a regular contributor to the New York Times blog “Well,” and is the author of Critical Care: A New Nurse Faces Death, Life, and Everything in Between.

I’m not about to write a formal book review as I’m not sure I can do it justice, but I hope Theresa and our listeners will enjoy hearing what I have to say. Simply put though, I really enjoyed the read and devoured it in short of about two days. Just listen in live or feel free to catch us on iTunes to hear my thoughts.

What I really wanted to mention here was that I quickly connected to Theresa’s style of writing and the silliest comment she made early on in the book had to do with our ongoing battle as nurses to find enough pillows in the hospital. I know, I know, you may be wondering if this is all I got from reading her book, but it’s just my warped sense of humor that made me laugh out loud and I of course could honestly relate. Trust me, the book is much more than this.

Anyway, since I haven’t been at the bedside for about five years now, this statement just brought back a flood of memories from when I worked in the ICU at Hopkins. For the clinical readers out there, you know what I’m talking about. For the non-clinical folks that follow this blog, let me just tell you that a pillow can literally save a patient’s life and we’re battling a monster that somehow feeds on them to the point of non-existence. Pillows are in fact endangered. If you make a request for a pillow, then you have to understand that we’re going to great lengths to find one for you.

A pillow doesn’t just offer a patient comfort, although we do strive to make you as comfortable as possible since we don’t let you ever sleep. In fact, we use pillows in the clinical setting for a variety of reasons:

  • Positioning a patient for a bedside procedure (i.e. central line insertions, minor surgical procedures, and diagnostics)
  • Elevating extremities when they’re edematous
  • Removing pressure on certain areas where skin is compromised
  • Protecting areas of the body that are subject to injury from bed rails or equipment that sits in the bed when transporting patients
  • Propping a patient up in bed when they’re having trouble breathing, or during a meal to help prevent choking.

The list really does go on here, but you get the idea. Pillows are really a life saver at the bedside, and they are a commodity in a hospital. It’s almost impossible to find an extra pillow or two (What?! You want two extra pillows?) and there really is a special club that only few belong to that know where they are stashed. It’s not as easy as  calling central supply for these things. They often don’t even have them. They really are hidden in various nooks and crannies of the hospital.

I’ve found myself on a few occasions floating to other floors feverishly looking for an extra pillow. If you’re a student and your preceptor sends you on this hunt, forget it. You’ve got a better chance summiting Everest. There’s a special “code” and handshake, and you’re not even an employee of the hospital.

So as I found myself on this quest wandering onto random floors, I would typically turn that very friendly greeting from a fellow employee into a very serious look of concern when I would ask very politely for a pillow. The seriousness of the matter was either wrapped in anxiety of them not knowing the whereabouts of an extra pillow, or that I wasn’t officially in the “club” and an outsider may compromise the secret of where all those extra pillows are hiding.

“I was wondering if you might have an extra pillow to spare? We’re attempting to put a line in on a patient and we just can’t seem to get this patient in the perfect position.”

“Yes, we do have some extra pillows.”

“Great, you don’t have to leave your patient to get it, just point me in the right direction.”

“I’m sorry, I don’t know you very well. You wait here, and I’ll go get you one.”

“But I know the secret handshake and code word, Sarah said I was inducted into the group last week.”

“Again, I’m sorry, I wasn’t notified by one of our members and I didn’t get the updated roster. Just wait here, I’ll be right back.”

You might think this is a joke, but there really is an internal black market in each hospital when it comes to these pillows. For the record I will say that it’s not as if money is exchanged. Trust me, if the benefits of my Amazon Prime Membership could ship a pillow to the bedside quick enough, I would pay for it. What I’m talking about comes in the way of favors, and a request to pay up can occur at any moment.

“Hey John, I noticed on the schedule that you’re not working on Thanksgiving, I was wondering if you might trade this with me for New Year’s Eve?”

“Oh man, I’m sorry, my mom is flying in and she’s making her special green bean casserole and I don’t want to miss that.”

“Green Bean casserole? Dude, it’s four ingredients. Green beans, cream of mushroom soup, soy sauce, and topped with fried onions. You can make it yourself. Besides, don’t you remember me hooking you up with those two extra pillows last week?”

“Oh, you just had to go there. Fine! I’ll switch.”

To all of my fellow nurses out there, if you know where an extra pillow is stashed and your colleague comes searching please help save a life and pay it forward. To the recipients, again these are a precious commodity so if you are receiving an extra pillow don’t forget you may be called upon to return that favor at a moment’s notice, and it may not seem fair at the time, but remember you did it to save a life.




  1. JEOlin2 on June 4, 2012 at 10:34 am

    Try finding extra pillows in the OR. Being a closed unit we can’t even go wander the floors looking for one or, God forbid, more than one. They are like salt, or gold, or chocolate…priceless and impossible to find when you really, really need some. 

  2. innovativenurse on June 4, 2012 at 10:53 am

     @JEOlin2 I have found myself on a few occasions coming across some of the most random hiding places for supplies and equipment that we’ve spent hours looking for. There truly is a secret society that monitors the whereabouts of all of these items. 

  3. TorontoEmerg on June 5, 2012 at 6:35 am

    My theory about pillows (and indeed all hospital equipment) is there is a vast Sargasso Sea of pillows, wheelchairs, BP cuffs etc on Rehab because most patients end up there sooner or later…. if I could only get into their supply rooms, I’m sure that missing defibrillator would be there. . . 

  4. innovativenurse on June 7, 2012 at 7:08 am

     @JEOlin2 Didn’t realize we had an international crisis on our hands. Are hospitals going to have to start forming committees? Any PhD students want to do some research and tackle this problem? Could be a heck of a dissertation. 

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