The How and Why of Nursing

I am a helper.


I was raised by freaky hippies who sent me to preschool wearing a blue ribbon pinned to my shirt in protest of nuclear energy; who carted me off pro-choice demonstrations (I had an FBI file by the time I was 12); who cultivated awareness of my community, both global and local, and nurtured the belief that I could and should make a difference.


Or I’m just warped and codependent like my mother, who is married to a man (my father) who can’t buy his own skivvies.


Whatever the reason, I believed gleefully and somewhat naively in my own power and importance and in the idea that one’s productivity should leave the world a better place.


Originally I wanted to be a lawyer. But by the time I was 12, my overworked, disillusioned and embittered godfather, an attorney, advised against it.


Then I wanted to be a journalist. The political muckraking kind that traveled the world exposing injustices and making sure things changed. Picture me with a superhero cape and a steno pad. Not one to commit to just ONE option, I think I remember telling an adult once that I wanted to be a journalist with a law degree. He was duly impressed. Yep, I was going places.


As a prep school graduate, I was sure of my own omnipotence. But I got a dose of my own “them’s the breaks, kid” when it became clear to the Registrar’s office that I couldn’t afford the bohemian college I was attending. Eventually enrolling in another university and another after that, I was halfway through a degree in Political Science with a minor in Spanish when I realized that not only did I not want to be a lawyer or a journalist, I didn’t want to be a politician either. Or a Spanish teacher. I graduated anyway.


I wanted to help people. I wanted to do hands-on, adventurous, life-changing work. I should go into the Peace Corps. Or I should do that some day. Like maybe when I don’t have a boyfriend. So into a life of nonprofit social services I went, only to discover that you can lead a horse to water… or a homeless crack addict to housing, mental health services and a job, but you just can’t make him join the homeowners association, or win employee of the month.


What to do…can’t pay the bills… can’t change people…can’t fix the world. Should have married an oil mogul with a heart condition… How to do work I feel good about…how to earn a living wage before turning tricks seems like a viable source of income… my mom’s a nurse. I SHOULD BE A NURSE!


I had never considered nursing. It was just what my mom did, and that hardly inspired. “But,” I reasoned, my mother’s coworkers seemed so dumb and I of course, was so worldly and intelligent. “This will be SO EASY and I will help people and I will make lots of money and I will be the boss in a flash! Yeah!


So back to school I went, only to discover that this shit was not easy. I was not as smart as I thought, or as cute as I thought, or as rich as I thought. And I worked my ass of doing really disgusting things like empty bedpans and change dressings and really hard things like explain the krebs cycle and read EKGs and evaluate hemodynamics and then I’d go to my job and try to stay awake so I could earn a paycheck to do it again the next day. But what I didn’t do was cringe or say “omfg I’m totally gonna go work in a private hospital” when I took care of the homeless, or the mentally ill, or the jail patients at the County facility that was home to my nursing program. I knew that was where I belonged and who I wanted to work with. And I didn’t have to make them change, or meet their milestones, I just had to provide excellent, diligent, intelligent care and show some compassion.


So once again with the can-do moxie of a bright-eyed, bushy-tailed, nursing school graduate with honors did I go bounding into the world the save the whole thing from itself. And once again did cruel reality stick it’s foot out from under the table to trip me and send me careening headlong into a world of utterly hateable, harpy shrews and the patients who jade them.


My first month on the job found me dutifully caring for my stroke patient, who had lost the use of his right side, by holding his penis for him as he peed into his bedside urinal, only to find him an hour later handily wielding a fork in his right hand to eat his grey and mushy hospital food. Then there was the guy with the draining testicular abscess who would wander out of the hospital in his gown every morning at 6:30 am to greet me as I arrived for work and ask me out to dinner (yeah, a lot of my more impressive nursing stories involve penises).


The truly unparalleled joy however, is the support that you get from other nurses.

Like the ones who say “No, I won’t help you turn your patient” or “Why didn’t you give this medicine that’s due at 10:00 tonight, even though your shift ends at 7?” and “If you don’t understand how to use this thing you’ve never been trained to use, then you shouldn’t be a nurse”.  Management is even better, with their “You don’t actually NEED needles to draw blood, so we’re not going to stock them” and “You may work 13 hour days on your feet managing some of the worst aspects of the human experience, but you don’t NEED a mental health day. Request denied”.


And all while earning roughly the same wage as people who don’t have to tie down alcoholics, get punched by their clients or clean up poop.


Nursing is hard. It is demanding mentally and physically. It is both time consuming and fast paced. It drains you sometimes even before you start the day. And even the most menial task sometimes seems like it will crush you under its weight.


But the hardest part of nursing, for me at least, is to remember that at the end of the day, I have achieved my goal. In the raw moments, when someone is critically ill, at their most vulnerable and most impotent, perhaps beyond all hope, to hold a hand and remind them that amid all the machines, treatments and calculating physicians, someone has remembered that they are a person, that they are present, and to look into their eyes and accept their humanity is to look directly into the eyes of God. Truly, it is often too bright and blinding to hold the gaze. But it is a strong and fast reminder of the blessing and the privilege it is to witness those moments and to participate in them. And for only a split second I feel like maybe I am helping someone. And maybe I am making just a tiny piece of the world a better place. And even though I can’t see it, maybe I do have a cape.


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