What Is PACU Nursing Like?

PACU nurses talking together and using app to pick up jobs

Following surgery, a patient is taken to a hospital's post-anesthesia care unit (PACU) to recover. In the PACU, a nurse supervises the patient by monitoring their vitals, levels of consciousness, and possible side effects from anesthesia; they also administer medication to relieve pain and manage patients’ bandages and dressings. The nurses who work in this unit, known as PACU nurses, also educate patients and families on post-surgery care. 

Often considered the "holy grail" of nursing or "nursing's best-kept secret," working in a PACU is ideal for nurses who enjoy devoting their time to only a few patients at once and appreciate caring for patients as they recover from anesthesia. Typically, when a patient regains consciousness and once the medical team determines there have been no adverse side effects from surgery, the patient is discharged from the PACU. 

To learn more about being a PACU nurse, check out Nursa's Ultimate Guide to Post-Anesthesia Care Unit Nursing, which provides a comprehensive overview of this nursing specialty. This blog post will give you an idea of the behind-the-scenes of PACU nursing—painting a picture of what a typical day looks like for a PACU nurse. 


A Day in the Life of a PACU Nurse

Ali Moog, RN, BSN, has been a nurse for seven years and transitioned from surgical nursing to PACU nursing six years ago. In an interview, she describes a day in the life of a PACU nurse.  

"We're staggered. There is no reason for everybody to show up at the same time in the PACU because everyone in the OR [operating room] starts around seven in the morning," Ali says. 

Her start time for a shift can be anywhere from 7 a.m. to 11 a.m., depending on how surgeries are scheduled for the day. 

During shifts, a charge nurse (a registered nurse essentially in charge of a hospital ward) assigns nurses to their patients. At this time, the PACU nurse familiarizes themselves with the patient's chart and history to prepare to support the patient's recovery following surgery. 

The handoff nurse, a certified registered nurse anesthetist (CRNA), accompanied by the circulating nurse (who provides supplies and sterile instruments during surgeries), provides a report to the PACU nurse on the patient's surgery and their situation regarding anesthesia. 

Following this report, the PACU nurse helps the patient settle into the post-anesthesia care unit. 

Ali will only care for one patient at a time when it comes to supporting intensive care unit (ICU) or pediatric patients following surgeries. She will have two patients under her care at a time for all other surgeries. While this ratio varies depending on the hospital setting, the nurse-to-patient ratio in PACUs everywhere across the U.S. is one to two maximum. 

A typical patient will stay in the PACU for anywhere from thirty minutes to several hours, depending on the type of anesthesia they have undergone. PACU nurses monitor patients' oxygen levels and vital signs until they are almost at normal levels to ensure they can be safely discharged from the unit. 


Work Environment for PACU Nurses


Here are a few things to note about the environment you'll be working in as a PACU nurse:

  • While you'll only care for a maximum of two patients at a time, working in the PACU can still involve working at a quick pace. Since patients are only in the unit for a few hours at most, you are likely to have a high turnover of patients throughout your shift. 
  • The PACU is a large room with curtains separating patients. These conditions can make for a loud working environment, as there will be multiple patients, staff, and machines in an enclosed space. 
  • Visiting is typically limited in the PACU. When it is safe for a family member, caregiver, or other companion to visit, a PACU nurse will typically allow them to visit for just a few minutes before the patient is discharged to an inpatient room, the day-of-surgery unit, or back home. 


Final Thoughts on Life as a PACU Nurse

Want to learn more about PACU nursing? Head over to Nursa's Ultimate Guide to Post-Anesthesia Care Unit Nursing. This ultimate guide is packed with information on everything you need to know when considering a transition to this nursing specialty, including what makes a good PACU nurse, steps to follow to become a PACU nurse, and tips for PACU nurses. 

If PACU nursing doesn't seem to be the best fit for you, check out Nursa's comprehensive guides on various nursing specialties to find a better-suited specialty. Choosing a specialty isn't easy—and it may take you trying a few specialties to find one that feels right. If you feel like you need additional support or want to bounce your thoughts off of your peers, check out the free online Nursa community to connect with nursing professionals across the country. 



Looking to pick up a high-paying per diem shift? Download the Nursa app today to browse nearby opportunities that fit your ideal work schedule.

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