I sit here staring at a blank computer screen, filled with quiet concern. It’s simply that I have so many things to say to about the nineteen million and counting nurses across the planet, and not enough time in the world to say it. They are my team. They are my posse. They are my family — an utterly dysfunctional one, but family at that. I believe that few professions exist where colleagues can be grossly irritated by each other one moment, and cracking jokes in the next. It has been mentioned before that what we do every day makes us akin to the “Navy Seals” of the healthcare profession. That statement alone suggests that nurses work in some of the most stressful environments while enduring more intense circumstances daily than many face in a lifetime. What we do, every single day, is a labor of love. But we are all in on the real secret: nurses are not angels placed on earth to serve and lift. We are not diminutive and submissive and gentle souls that kiss boo-boos. We are not the starched white caps and perfectly polished shoes that history books portray. Nor are we fishnet stockings and naughty rendezvous in dark corners. We have been glamorized and fetishized and placed on a pedestal unlike any other profession, and yet the definition of what we are is only surpassed by the list of what we are not.
Our Dirty Little Secret
Many will never understand the extent of what we do every single shift. They can only imagine that it’s a difficult profession (though they might never feel the weight of our feet, the ache in our backs, and the pain in our hearts at the end of it all). Some will say, “I wanted to be a nurse, but I could never do it.” We smile and say something along the lines of, “Yup, it’s a hard job but a good one,” without a second thought, understanding that most people truly couldn’t endure what we face every single day. Others might tell us how intelligent we are, and insist we attend medical school to become doctors. As much as we respect physicians, most of us don’t want to become them. The connections we make and the difference we incite in our patients lives are worth the countless pitfalls and sacrifices we face.
None of them are in on our secret. Patients and families; husbands and wives; parents and children and colleagues and friends: because while they try, they will never understand the depth and breadth of mind and body required of a nurse. Some might question that statement — how hard could it really be? Isn’t it only three shifts every week? Don’t you earn overtime and receive bonuses every year?It’s harder than they could ever imagine. It’s more raw and real than they could ever dream. Yet when something truly incredible happens, and we get to be a part of it, nursing becomes a drug unlike any other.
What a miracle! Families will shout.
The work of modern medicine! Physicians will declare.
And yet those who are in on the secret, or at least are suspicious of it, understand that it was no miracle that saved your loved one. Rather, it was the intent and vigilant care of a critically thinking, intuitive, and fiercely devoted nurse. Our secret is that we save more lives than we are willing to admit; we catch more errors than we hope to share; and we can sense subtle nuances that prevent a turn for the worse. The nursing profession is oft touted as a humble one — a life of service to others through altruistic compassion. Yet here we are, with our dirty little secret: our filthy mouths; our dark humor and sarcastic sensibilities; snarky and sassy and smart — can you sense that? Oh no, we are not all nuns in nurses’ clothing! We can be vicious. We can be vile. We can devour our young and destroy our reputations — we are not the perfect pictures you had envisioned – far from it.
We Are Human
We are human. We make mistakes. We pick fights. We become emotional. And we must. Because every single day we grapple with our own identities, not only as men and women but also as nurses — defined by a role that we wear as a badge of honor, yet has the potential to become a Scarlet Letter. We are in a constant state of battle: with the establishment; with disease; with matters of life and death; with our coworkers and our families and ourselves. What we take on when we clock in every morning or evening is far more powerful than just a job — it is a struggle to give 99 percent of your being to others while never releasing that final one percent of yourself. We are human. We are not infallible. We drink too much. We smoke too much. We eat candy bars for dinner. We take it out on you because there is nobody else to punch with our sack full of baggage. We are in one of the few businesses where an emergency is genuinely and truly an emergency — everything else is just details. And so while we apologize for our shortcomings; and we are sorry for our attitudes; and we hope to evolve into more compassionate and patient people everyday — we make no apologies about being nurses. Take us as we are, all of us — the beauty, the burdens — every ounce of us, because we did not choose to be this way. Somehow, even if you fight against it, becoming a nurse will find you. It will seep into the marrow of your bones. It will sink into your soul. You will sacrifice parts of your own being to protect perfect strangers, and it will feel like a totally rational thing to do.
It is not rational. It borders on crazy. We’re all a touch too neurotic; a smidgen too type-A; a little too caring and bit too self-invested. I walked away from a nine-to-five corporate career to pursue what was calling me. I ignored it, I fought it, but the nurse stirred from within and enveloped herself around me. And now? I will never be the same. I border on crazy. I’m slightly irrational. I’m absolutely neurotic. I’m completely invested. I’m a woman. I’m a wife. I’m a daughter. I’m a friend. But through it all, I am unapologetically a nurse.