Have you heard the one about the '52 Chevy Coupe and the nursing career? No? Well, you're about to. One afternoon when I was about eight years old, I was daydreaming on the curb in front of my house when one of those magical cars glided by. I immediately wanted one. It was a curvy, blue two-door with whitewall tires. I clearly remember thinking, “When I grow up, I'll get a job and earn enough money to buy one. I'll go places and do things.”
Imagine my pleasure when, years later, I discovered that the word career is derived from the Latin carrus, a kind of vehicle. What a wonderful metaphor: a career is a vehicle that takes you where you want to go. Think about it. You have to invest time, money, and effort in a career. You have to shop around for the kind you want: reliable or adventurous, glamorous or serviceable, of stable worth or rapidly depreciating.
I've had pretty good luck with cars and career alike. My first car was a boxy, green AMC Rambler American, bought from my mother's friend to ferry me to clinical sites during nursing school. Then I had a series of Volkswagen Beetles. For the past 15 years, I've had a Honda Accord. I sometimes tire of it, but it has never let me down.
For my career, I chose nursing right out of high school. It was one of the few professions open to me in an era when women's options—and my finances—were limited. It also afforded me a way to see the world.
I've had the same career for more than 40 years, but I've had several “models.” First I had a reliable hospital job. A couple of years later, I moved into the community as a visiting nurse, another traditional choice. When I saw an opportunity to work in international health, I grabbed it and took off for the Texas–Mexico border, then Brazil, Colombia, Guatemala, Nigeria, Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco, and, finally, Washington, DC. I worked first as a teacher, then as a program planner and administrator. This career model gave me all I'd hoped it would, including glamour. It was me; I loved it. Still, 10 years later, a new model attracted me, and though I agonized over making the trade, I did it. My 20 years as a family NP at an inner-city practice required a lot of maintenance, but they were enormously satisfying. The most adventurous (and least reliable) model of all is the one I have now: poet and essayist. It's like finally getting behind the wheel of that vintage luxury car you've dreamed about and discovering that you have to put up with unpredictable quirks and frequent breakdowns.
The considerable number of miles I've accrued thus far in the career I chose have taught me this, which I offer as advice to all who share the road with me: nursing is an all-terrain vehicle, and you're in the driver's seat. You control the steering, acceleration, and braking—so claim ownership. If you want to go off-road, up steep grades, and through deep water, this vehicle will take you there. If you want to park and wander off for a while, go ahead. It'll be there when you get back.
I'll never forget a conversation I had long ago with my husband, an economist, when he was experiencing a midlife crisis and searching for direction. “There's only one thing I envy about your career,” he said. “You're licensed to do something.” Yes, I'm licensed as an RN, and I'm also licensed to drive. With both licenses tucked in my pocket, I'm having a great ride.