I write fiction. I could compose a lovely story about the magnificent women who inspired me to become a nurse. I could tell you in poetic prose about their near-saintly lives, deep caring for their patients, and a profound love of humankind. It would not be difficult to embellish this tale in such a way that a tear might come to your eye as you read about these epitomes of professionalism and compassion.
I write fiction. But in this case, instead of an idealized nursing story, I’ll tell you what really happened. I don’t really know why I chose to be a nurse. I was a Candy Striper volunteer in middle school and early high school. It has always seemed natural to be a nurse, so maybe I didn’t choose this career; possibly it chose me. However, there were a few women whose presence affected the course my young adult life took; either positively or negatively, their actions motivated me to be a nurse.
The first person who contributed to my path toward nursing was my best friend in high school. It was the Summer before our first year in college and I had signed up for the pre-requisites to be a Radiology Tech. One day, completely surprising us both, I told my friend I did not really want to shoot X-rays for the rest of my life. Stunned, she asked me what I did want to do. In a rare moment of self-awareness, I told her I wanted to be a nurse, but I was scared I could not do it. She did not hesitate before telling me that I could do it, that she thought I would be a wonderful nurse, and that I should go and change my major the next day. And here I am.
The next woman who was instrumental in my career in this field was my grandmother. I have pictures of her in her twenties in a starched white uniform and hat, white shoes and stockings. Her title was ‘nurse’, though what training she had beyond high school is unclear. Her patients were residents of a state asylum for the mentally ill which was founded in 1869. My grandma was born in the first few years of the new 20th century, so she would have worked at the Anna State Hospital in Illinois in the nineteen-twenties. If I was writing fiction, I would tell you that I became a nurse after seeing pictures of my grandmother in her ‘whites’ and hearing how she attentively cared for her charges, thoughtfully ensuring that each of them had daily time outside in the fresh air and natural light in accordance with the ‘Kirkbride Theory’, a popular approach to the healing of the mentally ill during that time. Again, that’s not true. The only stories I have heard about my grandmother’s job in the asylum were that she worked nights and that she met my grandfather there when he began working as an orderly. The words that my grandma spoke that contributed to my 36-year career as a nurse were not ‘inspiring’ as such. What she said to me when life was really difficult and I didn’t know how I was going to manage a full-time job, family, and school was: “If you quit nursing school now, you’ll never go back.” Being the rebellious sort I am, I had to do it then, so though it took me seven years to complete a four-year program, I did indeed finish my BSN--just to prove grandma wrong. That was probably her plan in the first place; though I’m sure she never took a psychology class, she was smart about things like that. If she had not provoked my obstinate nature, I might have gone on to work in a bank, sell shoes, or manage an apartment building, all of which I did while in school. But here I am.
The third woman who influenced me was my first med-surg nursing school instructor. I don’t know if she was ‘burnt out’ and needed to retire, didn’t like me personally, or was just trying to weed out as many members of my class as she could, but she bullied and frightened and threatened me and a few other students for an entire semester. The culmination of that class was her question to me, “What are you going to do after graduation, Linda? You certainly are not going to be a nurse.” All these years later it would still be satisfying to call her or write to her and say just one thing: Well, here I am.
The fourth woman whom I credit for my career was an obstetrics instructor who actually was professional, compassionate and caring to her patients… and her students. She helped me by encouraging me to go ahead with my senior year despite the fact that the due date for my second child—much loved but not well-planned—was the day after my potential graduation. (My son actually managed to time it a little better than that; I received my nursing pin and lit my Florence Nightingale lamp with my class on Friday and he arrived on Monday.) Thankfully, I believed that instructor when she assured me that I could do it, just as I had believed my best friend seven years before. They were both right, because here I am.
I’ve never regretted becoming a nurse. This job has brought me joy, fulfillment, connection, and friendship. It has helped me to develop self-awareness, integrity, and empathy in addition to giving me a body of knowledge and skills that is still growing. I’ve also left work many days in tears of grief, frustration, or anger. Does all of this sound familiar? It sounds like life to me, and here I am.