I was formally introduced to nurses one early June morning when I was 14. Working papers in hand, school uniform blouse tucked into my brand-new pink-and-white-striped volunteer uniform, I approached the hospital where I was born.
"Now I'll know for sure," I thought, as I confidently entered the lobby. I'd wanted to be a nurse for many years. Hadn't I read all those novels extolling the heroics of school, army, and operating room nurses in series such as Cherry Ames and Sue Barton? Hadn't I watched enough episodes of Dr. Kildare and Ben Casey to note how nurses were relied upon by physicians in all situations, especially in a crisis?
But I thought I'd be smart and volunteer that summer in a hospital anyway—I could get firsthand experience, and do something worthwhile at the same time.
Things didn't turn out quite as planned, although I did enjoy my days as a candy striper. In retrospect, about 40 years later, what I remember most is bringing pitchers of fresh water to each patient on my floor and stopping to chat at the bedside. Whoever wanted to talk, I was ready to listen.
But as I observed the nurses going about their daily work, from the routine (administering medications, changing bandages, handling bedpans) to the extreme (giving injections, rushing to code situations as I was hurried out of the room, and—most often—answering the calls of "Nuuuurrrrse!" echoing in the hallways), I realized that the physical side of patient care wasn't for me.
I couldn't have put it into words that summer, but I knew I wanted to work with patients in a different way. I loved reading a newspaper aloud, looking at pictures of loved ones, or offering a cheerful distraction to someone who was lonely or scared. But what type of career was that? At the end of the summer I walked out through that same lobby with a few more wrinkles in my uniform and a lot less confidence in my step.
After a long and circuitous career in education, I finally found what I'd been looking for within those hospital walls: I pursued a second degree and became a social worker. I've worked now for a number of years in various medical settings—finally with the nurses whose ranks I longed to join so many years ago—but this time I'm focused on patients' psychological, emotional, and spiritual needs.
Not until my current position, however, did I fully appreciate the profession of nursing. I work on an outpatient dialysis unit where just about anything can happen at any time. Yesterday, for example, an unkempt, isolated patient in declining health proved to be badly in need of supervision and intervention. Then an elderly man's pulse suddenly dropped. Staff rushed to his side while 911 was contacted and his family counseled. Simultaneously, a very young patient was introduced to the unit—understandably resistant, the patient engendered great empathy from the staff. Add to this someone returning from a nursing home after a debilitating fall, as well as an angry patient who kept canceling treatments and a failed transplant recipient who must now resume them.
For a moment of respite from the beeps and buzzes, I walked back to the stillness of my office, wondering how I'd ever questioned the reason for the toughness and practicality of the nurses when I first came here. How could they be otherwise and survive?
But it wasn't even 15 minutes later that a nurse about my age stood in my doorway and proudly introduced her college-age son. "Kids today have great opportunities," she said. "He wants to change the world." Then she looked away and said, "Me, I just do a job."
I looked at her in disbelief. "You really feel you aren't changing the world too, the world of these patients? People who come here with a chronic disease—who could view it as a life sentence? Don't you realize that you help them know they can actually live with it, resume their lives, move ahead?"
She listened, but seemed unconvinced. Her eyes shining, she replied, "It's me who learns from them, who's come to realize that if I'm ever in a situation like theirs, I can go on."
As I watched her walk down the hall with her son, I could see that external toughness doesn't mean the feelings aren't there. Nursing is far from my early images gleaned from storybooks and television. It's dirty, dangerous, frustrating, and heartbreaking. And rewarding? I hope so. I hope it was just a rough day—and that she knows what she gives just by being here every day.