What Is Cardiac Cath Lab Nursing Like?

two nurses checking a patient into the cardiac cath lab

No two nursing specialties are entirely alike. In fact, one specialty is often completely different from the next, featuring unique workflows, reporting structures, team sizes, and tools/procedures that will need mastering. 

That’s not to mention the intangible differences as well, mainly the speed and intensity of the work being performed.

As a cardiac cath lab nurse, you will be assisting with several common procedures associated with cardiac catheterizations. Cardiac catheterization is a procedure in which a tube—called a catheter—is inserted into a blood vessel and guided to the heart. The catheter can then be used as an avenue for performing anything from pacemaker installation to removing blockages in the heart or its arteries.

Given the extremely specialized nature of this work, aspiring cath lab nurses should have a solid grasp of the work they’ll be performing, as well as the unique stressors and challenges associated with that work. We’ll be covering both in this article.

Let’s get started!

What Is a Cardiac Cath Lab Nurse?

Let’s start with the basics: What role does the cardiac cath lab nurse play in the cath lab?

At the most fundamental level, a cardiac cath lab nurse is a registered nurse (RN) who works in the cardiac cath lab. As there is no single unified setup for cath labs, the specific responsibilities associated with this role can vary wildly depending on the staff, needs, and specialized knowledge present in a given team.

Regardless of the specific setup of the facility, these nurses are responsible for providing care to patients undergoing cardiac catheterization—and other associated—procedures. They work alongside the rest of the team, including cardiologists, techs, anesthesiologists, and other nurses.

As previously mentioned, the role of a cardiac cath lab nurse can be fairly complex. They are responsible for preparing a patient prior to their procedure, monitoring that patient during the procedure, and providing post-procedure care. In essence, they handle any of the patient’s nursing needs arising from the catheterization procedure.

However, that is just scratching the surface of the massive role that cath lab nurses play. They are also responsible for providing and administering medication and IVs and monitoring equipment and vitals during critical points in the procedure. 

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, cath lab nurses act as advocates for the patient’s wants and needs, ensuring that the patient is treated with humanity and respect throughout the procedure. At times, this also means communicating with the patient’s family, loved ones, and/or caretakers.

In addition to these core responsibilities, cath lab nurses also ensure that the lab is prepped for each procedure and is equipped with the right tools and equipment for a speedy and effective operation.

A Day in the Life of a Cath Lab Nurse

As you can see, there’s a tremendous amount of work that goes into cath lab nursing. And while this is true, and the above covers most of the responsibilities that a cath lab nurse might handle, these responsibilities are often split between a few nurses. As a new nurse, you’ll often be assigned to a team with at least one other RN.

While there’s always plenty of work to do in the cath lab, it is by no means the most intense of all the nursing specialties.

According to one cath lab nurse on Reddit, a typical day goes as follows:

“A typical day goes like this- I come in, see which cases I'm assigned to, look up info on the patient, get meds ready and get any equipment needed for the procedure ready. Go see the patient in the pre/post op area. Make sure consent and H/P are done, and if not inform the doctor to come do them. I do a pre op assessment, where I check pulses, do a barbeau test if we plan to go radial, get a report from the preop nurse, introduce myself to the patient and explain a little bit about the procedure, make sure labs are within normal range, and if not inform the doctor to see if they still want to proceed with the case. During a case I am circulating, where I'll be giving sedation and other meds to the patient, along with fetching whatever the doctor is asking for if they don't have it on their table. I could also be monitoring, which is the person who does all the documentation for the case. Some cath labs will teach you to scrub as well. I don't have to as we have some excellent scrub techs. Once a case finishes I'll call report and transport the patient back to the post op area.

Of course, this is just one nurse’s experience, and yours may be very different. In this case, the nurse handles much of the initial setup and patient interactions. In other cases, the nurse is more focused on monitoring or scrubbing roles within the cath lab. 

Intensity of Work

Being a cardiac cath lab nurse is no walk in the park, but it also isn’t the most intensive nursing specialty out there. It does not include the chaos associated with the emergency room (ER), where patients in critical conditions are often pulled in at a moment’s notice. Nor does it have the same level of complexity and quiet stress as the operating room (OR), where incredibly complex operations are performed—sometimes lasting many, many hours. 

See also: Nursing De-stress Tips to Avoid Burnout in Healthcare

In the cath lab, there is a much smaller range of potential operations that will be performed regularly. As a result, there is a certain level of routine that can develop on experienced teams, minimizing the stress and intensity of the work.

At the same time, when something goes wrong in the cath lab, it goes wrong very quickly. Anything concerning blood vessels and the heart can quickly develop into a life-threatening situation, and aspiring cath lab nurses should acknowledge this possibility before pursuing this career.

Interested in Cath Lab Nursing?

There are plenty of things to like about cath lab nursing. The patient interactions are fairly minimal and typically positive. The work is fulfilling but not usually overwhelming; you’ll be genuinely improving the lives of your patients and not driving yourself crazy in the process.

If cath lab nursing sounds like a great role for your future career, check out our Ultimate Guide to Cath Lab Nursing. In it, you’ll be able to learn all about this specialized nursing field and make a better-informed decision when it comes to choosing your path.

You can also learn more about all the other common nursing specialties in our per-diem nursing blog. In it, we cover tons of topics relevant to every branch of nursing. As usual, thanks for reading!

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