The Calling: What Made Me Pursue a Nursing Career

by Ruby Vee

The calling: I didn't have one. My reasons for becoming a nurse involved more a desire to better my own circumstances than a desire to better someone else's. The desire to help people, to make a difference in their lives came after I became a nurse.

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    The Calling:  What Made Me Pursue a Nursing Career

    “Become a nurse just for the money? How can you possibly be a good nurse if you’re doing it just for the money?”

    The implication seems to be that in order to be a good nurse, one has to have a “calling”. This is the idea put forth mostly be brand new nurses, student nurses, students in pre-nursing and “wannabe” nurses. In some cases, they really seem to believe that they have a calling -- they’re called to “help people” or to “make a difference”. In other cases, they seem to be grasping for reasons why they should get into nursing school when positions are limited and their grades aren’t all that stellar. “It doesn’t matter that I got a “C” in Microbiology,” one girl wailed. “I’d be a much better nurse than TIFFANI, and SHE got in. It’s just because of her grades! I have FAR more compassion that HER.”

    The idea of nursing requiring a calling is one that just doesn’t seem to go away. For every person who got through school, became a nurse and realized that there is much more to the job than having a calling, the woodwork seems to sprout a few more who subscribe to the same belief system. It’s argued about continuously on allnurses.com. If you don’t have a “calling,” then you have no business taking up a position in nursing school that could go to me . . . I have a calling, you see, and I’d be a much better/kinder/more compassionate nurse than someone who is just in it for the money.

    Most of us go into it because we think we can contribute in some way, but also for the money. I don’t know very many independently wealthy individuals who still go to work in the hospital every day. I do know a few -- my friend Bob, for example. Bob became a millionaire flipping houses, and continues to work as a nurse because he loves it. But he’s the exception rather than the rule, and a pretty rare exception at that.

    Nursing is a difficult job. The hours are long, the work is dirty and the people you encounter aren’t always the cream of society. If you go into it because of a calling, you may not last. Of course, if you go into it just for the money, you may not last, either.

    I went into nursing because I didn’t want to hunt for a job. Ever.

    It was 1974, and I was looking for a summer job. The local newspaper had a whole section for employment ads -- most of them for registered nurses. I was a biology major, just finishing my first year of college, and I thought I might be a journalist. Or a biologist. My advisor had high hopes of me going to medical school -- a goal that seemed so far out of reach as to be utterly unobtainable. He thought I was smart enough, that my grades were good enough, and that if I applied, the money would come. Not that much money. Nothing in my background had ever prepared me for the possibility of aiming so high. Just going to college was the most that anyone in my family had ever attained. Medical school seemed impossible. But I enjoyed science, especially my biology class.

    And there was that summer job I needed. With the school year drawing to a close, I was desperate to find a way to stay in town -- or near to it anyway -- rather than going home for the summer. I’d moved out of my parents’ home the day after my high school graduation because I was tired of the beatings, the verbal abuse and the scapegoating. I went to a college on the other side of the state -- the furthest away I could get from my parents and still have some hope of being able to pay the tuition. I wasn’t going to count on my parents to help out -- experience had already taught me that I couldn’t count on them.

    I found a room to rent in the home of an elderly couple. A bedroom with an old-fashioned four poster bed and antique dresser. I’d share a bathroom with the Johnsons and one other tenant, and I’d have “kitchen privileges.”

    It was $10 a week. I didn’t have much stuff -- everything I owned had fit into the back of my parents’ station wagon for transport to college, and I certainly didn’t have enough money during the school year to add to my meager stash of possessions -- except, of course, for school books. So I didn’t need much room. And $10 a week was pretty affordable. Now all I needed was a job. My work/study jobs ended with the school year.

    Pages and pages of ads for nurses, a job for which I was completely unqualified. Hardly any ads for anything for which I could by any stretch of the imagination be considered qualified.

    One of those few ads was for “Salad Girl” in a local supper club. The owner of the supper club was a hearty, overweight and quite social fifty year old man who seemed to me, a year short of twenty, to be ancient. He had an enormous diamond pinky ring and a diamond tie tack, and his dark hair was greased straight back. I know what I’d think if I met him for the first time today. At that time, I didn’t think much except to wonder if he’d give me the job. He did.

    I had applied for every dishwashing, waitressing, short order cooking or hostessing job that was advertised in the newspaper, and by the time I got to applying at the Supper Club, I was desperate for a job. It probably showed.

    The interview focused on my qualifications -- not that I had many -- and my salary expectations. I didn’t have much in the way of expectations, either. I hoped to make minimum wage. And minimum wage is what I was offered after a lengthy and anxiety-laden interview during which I was POSITIVE I wasn’t going to get a job and would have no where to go except back to my parents home.

    When they offered me a part time position, I grabbed it. It would be enough to cover the $10 a week for my room and another $10 or so for groceries, laundry, etc. It wasn’t going to be enough to save much for school the next year, but I had my school loans. I would get by. I would HAVE to get by because the alternative -- going home in disgrace to work at the local feed mill and marry a farmer -- was too horrible to contemplate. Besides -- I’d gotten used to plumbing and electricity while I was living in the dormitory, and my parents didn’t have those conveniences in their farmhouse.

    Armed with a part time job and a place to say, I was ready for the summer. But the job seeking ordeal had left its mark on me. All summer long, as I looked for a second job so I’d make enough money to save something for the school year, I confronted those want ads for nurses. And all summer long, I thought about what it would be like to have job skills that were so much in demand I could just walk in and tell them which job I wanted. (It really was more or less that way for the first three decades of my nursing career.) Nursing looked like a pretty good deal. And so I investigated.

    Nurses were much in demand, it seemed. So much so that the federal government was offering free money to go to school to be a nurse. Not loans -- I had plenty of loans. But Basic Education Opportunity Grants, or BEOG. The grants didn’t have to be paid back. And all I had to do to qualify was declare a nursing major. Back to the advisor I went, asking him about nursing.

    If the state university that was the farthest away from my parents’ home while still being in-state hadn’t had a nursing program, things may have turned out very differently for me. I didn’t choose my school based on the nursing program -- it was just there. As luck would have it, it was a pretty good program.

    The pre-requisites for the nursing program included biology -- and I’d taken two bio classes already, psychology, which I’d also taken as a 101 class and Microbiology. I hadn’t taken that one, but I had the pre-requisite 101 biology classes. They were also looking for good grades. I had those as well. Great grades, as a matter of fact.

    My advisor was still bent on me going to medical school, but allowed as how I’d have to major in SOMETHING to get a degree so that I could even apply to medical school. Nursing would be as good as anything. A lot of classes I would have to take for nursing would be good prep for medical school. Reluctantly, he signed off on my change of major and referred me to a new advisor in The School of Nursing.

    She was a white haired “older lady” who must have been about the age that I am now -- late fifties. Her name was Margaret. I don’t remember her last name, but then I was never encouraged to call her by it. On like my previous advisor, who was always “Dr. Jones”, Margaret insisted that I call her Margaret from the first time I met her.

    On one of our first meetings, Margaret asked me why I wanted to become a nurse. Since I knew that my REAL reason -- not wanting to ever have to hunt for a job again -- wasn’t likely to go over very well, I had prepared and answer about how I wanted to help people, to make a difference in people’s lives.

    Margaret had probably heard it all before, and likely didn’t actually believe that any more than I did. She did me the courtesy, however, of NOT laughing at me. She just shook her head, and handed me a list of classes I’d have to take and hoops through which I’d need to jump before I could be admitted to the School of nursing and start the clinical aspect of a nursing major.

    Even then, I don’t think I was resigned to actually being a nurse. Declaring a nursing major got me free money, which enabled me to stay in school, since I hadn’t actually saved much money over the summer. There was the idea of never having to actually hunt for a job again. And my parents were surprisingly approving -- probably for the first time in my life.

    My mother had always wanted to be a nurse, and had even tried to get into LPN school. She couldn’t pass the entrance exams after two tries. If I could get into nursing school, she’d be proud. “Besides,” she told me. “It’s an easy job. All you have to do is sit in the nurse’s station and drink coffee and tell the aides what to do.” It’s an indication of how clueless I was that I actually believed that.

    By the time I graduated, three years later after taking a semester off to make more money for school, I was determined to be a nurse. That semester off had been brutal -- I’d worked three jobs starting at 5 AM cleaning hotel rooms and finishing at 2AM closing a bar. Some days I’d have a day off from one or two of the jobs and would get to sleep. Having one job with benefits and $6/hour seemed like real wealth! And after being a maid, waitress, bartender and cook, nursing seemed like an easy job.

    It wasn’t until after I started working as a nurse that the reality of actually helping people struck me. After I made it through that first difficult year, I realized that I was making a difference in people’s lives, and I liked the feeling. But that isn’t why I became a nurse. I became a nurse for the money, and although I love what I’ve done for the past 35 years, I wouldn’t do it for free -- although it is nice to know that if civilization collapsed and money was useless, I have skills with which to barter.
    Last edit by Joe V on Aug 6, '12
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  4. About Ruby Vee

    Ruby Vee, having grown up in a farmhouse lacking plumbing and electricity now lives in a home with more bathrooms than people. Nursing gave her a pretty nice life, with a comfortable home, dependable cars and a husband whom she met at work.

    Ruby Vee joined Jun '02 - from 'the Midwest'. Ruby Vee has '35' year(s) of experience and specializes in 'ICU/CCU'. Posts: 7,605 Likes: 25,060; Learn more about Ruby Vee by visiting their allnursesPage


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    35 Comments so far...

  5. 2
    Moving article. Thank you for sharing, and for your honesty. I admired your courage and perseverance. It's nice to know that it all worked out well for you.
    herring_RN and Onewhocares12 like this.
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    I know exactly what you are talking about, I read it all the time also. It seems some people act like if you work for the money, you don't deserve to be a nurse. I didnt go into nursing because of a "calling" I was trying to find the easiest way become an officer in the Air Force, so I could live happily ever after with my Capt. boyfriend.

    It didn't work out that way, but I did become a nurse, did not go back in the military and love what I do and wouldn't trade it for the world, however, I also would not do it for free. If I was wealthy, I would work prn as I don't think I could ever stop working, but they would still need to pay me. I will not apologize for my motivations and I have the best of both worlds, a job I love, and getting paid well to do it.
    herring_RN, scottrho, NyteshiftLVN, and 1 other like this.
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    Love this! Thanks for sharing your story with us, Ruby Vee.
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    I was one who did have , "The Calling"....I had owned a successful small business for ten years but was never satisfied within....despite having a comfortable income I was un-fullfilled.....when the fall of 2010 was approaching, my mother became very ill as a result of frail and aged body, as well as complications from a surgery....in her last days I was blessed to have had the time to spend with her and witness the fantastic nurses care for her...they were wonderful and helped her and my family transition into her passing....the nurses who had the most impact were two mid-twenty male nurses, and being a guy that really woke me up to what I could possibly do for others...It was a true "Calling"....

    I fault no nurse in how they came about the path they chose, I admire all of us who have chosen this road....I appreciate your article, it is cool to see different perspectives....Thanks!
    HeyYogaGirl and Maryea like this.
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    Great article! I love your honesty! When I was in nursing school one of my instructors was within earshot when a patient told me what a great nurse I was going to be, because I was so "kind". My instructor stepped toward us and interrupted, "No, she's not going to be a good nurse because she's KIND, she's going to be a good nurse because she's SMART!" I was thrilled and flattered and enormously proud of myself until the instructor pulled me aside later, "Don't get too pumped up about being smart, what I was really saying was that it takes BRAINS to be a good nurse--I wasn't talking about you in particular, just generally..." Oh, well...

    You're so right about the fantasies and idealized images some students and not-yet-students have of the profession. Not sure about you, but I can't remember the last time I saw a nurse sitting next to a patient's bed, holding their hand and reassuring them. These students must wonder why they need to study microbiology, A&P, pharmacology, etc., just to hold hands with patients!

    Of course, being young and idealistic is wonderful (but it needs to be balanced with a degree of reality). No one ever changed the world who was jaded and resigned to the status quo. I admire enthusiasm and passion; I hope I've retained both. When I'm no longer passionate about what I do, or when I've lost my enthusiasm, I hope I'm wise enough to know it and hang my stethoscope up forever.
    GrnTea likes this.
  10. 1
    great post ruby.

    i didn't get into nursing because i had a calling either, i got into it trying to decide if i liked the medical field prior to attempting school as a physician's assistant. turned out i liked it and decided to stay with nursing as there was more variety imho. i love what i do (now that i'm about to actually get to do it again), and i love the fact that i get paid well to do it.
    i knew a nun who worked for a catholic hospital i once worked at, she was a very good nurse. she did not get paid i don't think, but her room and board was provided by the church; now that's a "calling".

    i got into nursing to figure out what i wanted to do, i stayed because of the variety of things you can learn and do in one's career. would i do it for free, no, my family has to eat and keep a roof over our heads. do i feel bad that i am happy to make a good living doing something i actually enjoy, nope.

    if i didn't enjoy nursing i wouldn't do it, and that i think is the real key.
    Wild Irish LPN likes this.
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    I love your article, but I am confused...why does having a calling translate to working for free? I absolutely had a calling after my son was in the NICU for two long months The nurses were amazing and I knew that I was meant to be a NICU nurse after that experience. The pay is great too! However, I have never had the urge to not get paid for my work, even though when I'm in the NICU it feels so right. Now if only this new graduate could find a job
    Shelbster and Wild Irish LPN like this.
  12. 1
    Quote from Greenkji
    I love your article, but I am confused...why does having a calling translate to working for free? I absolutely had a calling after my son was in the NICU for two long months The nurses were amazing and I knew that I was meant to be a NICU nurse after that experience. The pay is great too! However, I have never had the urge to not get paid for my work, even though when I'm in the NICU it feels so right. Now if only this new graduate could find a job
    It is a typical slippery slope argument on AN that if you are truly working it because of a "calling" you should be working for free.

    I personally was like you Ruby. I vowed never to work behind a desk and never wanted to look for a job. I also wanted a field that could cater to my rapidly approaching boredom. When I get bored, I move to a different area, problem solved but still doing the same trick so not having to learn something new each time.
    Ruby Vee likes this.
  13. 0
    Thank you for sharing!! =)


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