Graduate School of Nursing Dissertations

Publication Date


Document Type

Dissertation, Doctoral


Graduate School of Nursing

Dissertation Committee Chair

Jean Boucher


Nurse’s Role, Emergency Nursing, Critical Care, Psychological Stress

Subject Categories



This qualitative descriptive research study was undertaken to describe the experiences of emergency nurses with critical incidents and identify strategies used to manage these situations in the emergency department setting. Critical incidents are events, such as death or serious injury, that cause a strong emotional reaction and may overwhelm a nurse‘s usual coping skills. Nineteen nurses who worked in one of two community-based emergency departments in Central Massachusetts were interviewed and asked to describe a critical incident they had experienced in their nursing career. Qualitative content analysis revealed two major themes: (1) critical incident experiences; and (2) aftermath; and five subthemes: (a) connections; (b) workplace culture; (c) responses; (d) lasting effects; and (e) strategies.

Critical incidents were limited to events with children, patient deaths, and interactions with family; this differed from prior research in that no incidents were identified involving multiple casualties, violence, or mutilating injuries. Connections occurred when the patient was known to the nurse or reminded the nurse of self or family. Responses were the reactions of the participants to the critical incident and were physical, psychological, and spiritual in nature. The majority of study participants cried in response to a critical incident. Workplace culture, a subtheme not found in other studies, involved their perceptions of expected behavior in the emergency department and emphasized the influence of workplace culture on newer or inexperienced nurses.

The theme of aftermath described the time period following critical incident. Lasting effects occurred in the form of vivid memories that were triggered by different stimuli. The subtheme, strategies, revealed that nurses desired, but lacked formal strategies to manage their reactions following a critical incident. Thus, they described the use of informal strategies such as talking to co-workers and family members.

Implications of this study support the need for educational preparation and support of emergency nurses who deal with critical incidents in the workplace. Intervening during the critical incident experience and having follow-up strategies in place to prevent distress and enhance coping in the aftermath are important for well-being, practice, and patient care in the emergency setting.



Rights and Permissions

Copyright is held by the author, with all rights reserved.

Creative Commons License

Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License.

Included in

Nursing Commons