Theresa Brown: RN Media Star

Nurses are entrepreneurs, and every day we meet one who stands out of the crowd. Theresa Brown can be included in this group of innovators since she is a celebrated New York Times columnist and an acclaimed author. This is her story.


Theresa Brown has done it all and she shared her unconventional story with She has the singular honor of being the only RN columnist at what has been called the best paper in the country. Obama knows her name as well as her patients and they both called on her for help. Brown is at ease in academia, the nurse's station and even the White House!

In a far reaching phone interview, NY times columnist and author of Critical Care: A New Nurse Faces Death, Life, and Everything in Between, Theresa Brown RN, discussed her story. Despite her busy schedule as a part time oncology nurse at a major hospital in Pennsylvania, Brown has managed to combine the best of both worlds.

She stays connected to the clinical side of nursing on the weekends, doing the classic 12 hour shift and this leaves her time to write for the New York Times, for her "bedside" column. Her next book, aptly entitled THE SHIFT: One Nurse's Twelve Hours on the Hospital's Frontlines is set to appear next fall. This journey has even taken her to the White House!

Brown's voyage to RN/ author was far from typical. This trip took her from the rarefied world of being an English professor at Tufts University to an accelerated nursing program. "Accelerated degree nurses like me, people wonder if (we) were really prepared".

Despite the rapidity of the degree, Brown hit the ground running, and has been working in oncology ever since, which formed the backdrop of this book. She discussed this and concludes that other career changers "weren't crazy either".

Brown cites Wall Street brokers, dancers, and junior high teachers as others who have done the same. She writes about this in her first book Critical Care, and discussed the commonality of nurses who have faced their "first death, bullying and negotiating with different groups". She went to nursing school at the University of Pittsburgh, where she graduated with a BSN after completing a Ph.D. in English from the University of Chicago.

Brown has the rare ability to translate nursing jargon into a story that the non-nurse can understand. They can walk away with the idea that they have been given entry into the special world of the hospital nurse, with all their tradition and lingo.

Brown writes about her first death, of her patient Mary, and describes her cancer and its ensuing sob (shortness of breath). She breaks down why the body reacts the way it does when faced with this dilemma. The reader is transported to this milieu immediately.

Brown intends to do the same with her new book, "THE SHIFT: One Nurse's Twelve Hours on the Hospital's Frontlines." Brown explained that this will deal with a typical day in the life of a nurse, and as a spoiler adds that it will spotlight "two puzzling cases...and look at a normal reasonable day, not eating lunch, on your feet for 12 hours".

As for the struggle between doctors and nurses, Brown explains that she has felt the friction, and she has learned to deal with the backlash. Some doctors have been supportive of her efforts to bring the world of nursing to the public. Others not so much and the criticism pretty much centers around her work as a writer for the New York Times, "bedside" column on the op-ed page and the New York Times blog, "Opinionator".

She has also written for the New York Times "Well" blog. There are some doctors who are "...internet trolls and write something nasty for the New York Times". She continues, "that those outside of the healthcare realm don't see doctors that way...we need doctors not to be jerks on the job".

Brown also talked about the controversial and probably by now, the world's best known nurse, Kaci Hickox, who defied her controversial quarantine in a tent in New Jersey to travel to Maine and return home. She then went on a now famous bike ride with her boyfriend.

Brown answers when asked if the image of the "Johnson & Johnson" nurse has been tarnished, does not think so, because ..." she (Kaci) went about it in a very smart way". She goes on to explain that she was not going to the mall in Maine, and she called her "brave".

Brown thinks that the crisis around Ebola will only serve to strengthen the image of the nurse. On the flip side, in so far as the media portrayal of the doctor in New York who returned with a full blown case of Ebola, the nurses fared worse. "I find it very upsetting, not strange" that nurses were being maligned more than doctors during this crisis. Brown was so concerned that she wrote an article for CNN called "Ebola will elevate respect for nurses" last month.

Brown is not sure that a nursing shortage may ensue due to the glut of baby boomers retiring. She cites the desperate need for nurses in rural areas. Brown would like to see more government support for the BSN if it becomes the entry level degree for RNs. Brown, by the way, is no stranger to politics. She was invited by President Obama in September 2009 as a guest at the White House when he talked about her column supporting health care reform (2009). He cited her story about a leukemia patient who had trouble paying for his hospital bill. Then she went back to work the next day on the oncology floor.

She is encouraging RNs to start their own blog, even if a small number of people read it, because stories about what nurses experience is of value. She cites evidence that nurses who journal are much calmer on the job and that even telling your story verbally of what happened that shift would help not only the nurse, but the public too.

Despite all her accomplishments, which include her essay "Perhaps Death Is Proud," which first ran in the New York Times Science Times in 2008, and was later included in the Best American Science Writing 2009 and Best American Medical Writing 2009 anthologies, she remains grounded. She explains that the New York Times told her that the nurses' voice was one they never heard. That is when they offered her a chance to write for their Well blog. When asked the proverbial question, regarding a future New York Times number one best seller and a movie, she answers "That would be great ...I love the writing...that gives me something to look forward to, working in the hospital."

This writer has interviewed a TV/best selling author/Vegas star (Suzanne Somers) in the recent past. But a nurse who made it to the New York Times?

This was almost an unreal scenario. In addition, she is coming out with book number two describing the world of nursing as only an insider who has been in the trenches can cover. To say this writer was not a bit anxious before the interview would not be telling the truth. However, within minutes, the image of the Ivy League professor turned oncology nurse and media star at the New York Times disappeared. Theresa Brown is funny, refreshing and an original. She is very genuine and concerned about how nurses are portrayed in our tech savvy world and this caring attitude is conveyed in her every word.

Debi Fischer RN, BA, BSN, MSW, LSCW is a nurse in a surgical oncology step down unit. Prior to that she worked in orthopedics and neurology. She has earned a master’s degree in social work and is also a Licensed Clinical Social Worker.

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tnbutterfly - Mary, BSN, RN

156 Articles; 5,918 Posts

Specializes in Peds, Med-Surg, Disaster Nsg, Parish Nsg.

What a great inside view of the author. I read that article in CNN when it was published and was very much impressed by it. Thanks for posting the names of her books. I will have to read those.

Great job with the interview!! Looking forward to reading others you might do.

Debi Fischer

14 Articles; 78 Posts

Specializes in Orthopedics and Neurology.

Thank you for your encouragement.


68 Posts

Excellent article. I really enjoy Theresa Brown's writing in the NYT. Since I'm not a nurse, I have wondered what nurses think of her. She has a true gift for communication. She's writing about things most folks can understand -- short staffing, obstreperous colleagues -- then all of a sudden you are reminded that she is addressing life or death issues. It has a real impact -- on me, anyway. Now you've inspired me to want to check out her book!

Specializes in ED, ICU, MS/MT, PCU, CM, House Sup, Frontline mgr. Has 15 years experience.

I love this article!!!! As a career changer myself, I feel a major connection! :) I volunteer within my community to support health care for those who have limited access. I use skills and experience gained as a clinically working nurse, but I also use my talents and skill set learned from my career in health care prior to nursing to make an even bigger impact!

With that said, not only do I love to see that she continues to work as a nurse, but she is able to use her talents and skills learned away from bedside to translate and articulate our challenges to lay people. Therefore, I think she is modest and that her blog and column serves to elevate nursing in ways that not many of us could. So, I too encourage the nurses that have blogs to continue and those who can write well, to start a blog . It is possible on allnurses (plug)! :)

Excuse all of my smilies; I am just so happy for her career success and hope that she continues to receive more of the same. :) OP thank you for the post. :)

Debi Fischer

14 Articles; 78 Posts

Specializes in Orthopedics and Neurology.

Thank you. I am glad you enjoyed the article.

Debi Fischer

14 Articles; 78 Posts

Specializes in Orthopedics and Neurology.

Glad you liked the article.