I'm not sure exactly when I decided to become a nurse. When I was in fourth or fifth grade, I flirted briefly with the notion of becoming a veterinarian, but then I began to read the Cherry Ames series of books. Cherry was smart, caring, and independent. She had a job; she traveled. She had the courage to ask questions and to break the rules occasionally, when necessary. I was impressed. But I didn't think seriously about becoming a nurse until my freshman year in high school, when the guidance counselor met with each of us, explaining that it was time to start thinking about our plans for after school. This was in an era when most young women went into teaching, nursing, or secretarial work. The more I learned about what nurses did, the more I felt nursing was a good choice: the work changed constantly and was important. (I did think about becoming a physician for about a minute—but the education was long and costly, and the profession seemed not nearly as exciting by Cherry Ames standards.) After a trip with a younger brother to an ED, I fell in love with emergency nursing. Saving lives in the nick of time seemed especially exciting and heroic.
During college, I worked as a nurse's aide on medical–surgical units in two different hospitals. I observed the nurses and tried to emulate those who were organized and whose patients always seemed well cared for and satisfied. I listened to nurses talking with physicians and department heads to make sure their patients were getting the necessary tests and medications, and with patients’ families to explain procedures and allay fears. Time and again, I saw nurses do things they really didn't have time for, forgoing lunch or staying late because a patient needed something. I began to see that it wasn't only the emergencies that came with thrills and acts of courage. Watching a patient go home when few thought he would ever do so, seeing a patient triumph in giving herself an insulin injection, these events also prompted excitement. And there were heroics, too. I watched a nurse manager take flak from a medical chief for refusing to transfer an ICU patient who needed continuing intensive care just to make room for a VIP who really didn't. I watched a nursing director take a stand against the hospital CEO, keeping beds vacant until she could be assured of reasonably adequate staffing. Once, nurses held surgeons, residents, and patient transporters at bay, insisting that they wait for an elderly woman to arrive so that she could see her husband before his surgery; it turned out to be the last time she saw him. My clinical career eventually included emergency, outpatient oncology, and medical–surgical nursing, as well as a short stint in a neonatal ICU. Now I spend much of my time listening to “real nurses” (as my sons might say) talk about their work. I'm always impressed and often humbled.
When I ask other nurses why they chose nursing as a career, most just shrug their shoulders and say something like “It seemed like the work would be challenging and worthwhile” or “I wanted to do something that would matter.” Although some cite job security, saying “I knew I'd always be able to find a job,” this isn't mentioned as frequently as it used to be. But by and large, what attracts most men and women to nursing seems to come down to two things: the work has value and meaning, and the salary is decent. Just about every nurse I've spoken with says the work is harder than she or he thought it would be.
This month we celebrate National Nurses Week (May 6 through May 12). Our cover features a photograph of Carolyn Freeman, a volunteer nurse with the American Red Cross Disaster Health Services. (See On the Cover for more information.) According to the Red Cross, more than 20,000 paid and volunteer nurses work in various capacities; Sharon Stanley, the organization's chief nurse, tells me that 4,500 of these nurses provide disaster health services. Nurses’ work is hard work, physically, mentally, and emotionally; yet these men and women ask themselves to do even more, traveling on a moment's notice to places ravaged by disasters. I'm in awe of these nurses. But then again, I'm in awe of most nurses, whose commitment to patients is tried and proven every day. Happy Nurses Week!