I use nurse characters in my short stories and novels because nursing is a profession I know. After hearing the way nurses and nursing are sometimes described, I feel compelled to defend my choice.
Nurses are not would-be doctors or women too stupid to become doctors. I have a MA and a MS degree. Nurses who put up with abusive criticism from patients and their families are not naturally submissive and unable to be assertive about their individual rights. A new nurse soon learns that a drag-out argument with a sick person in pain, and with that person’s family, will produce a bad outcome for all concerned. Nurses are aware that there are other less female-dominated professions. Usually, if a person stays in nursing beyond five years, it is because that person likes nursing and thinks it’s a worthwhile job.
In the middle of the night, attending physicians, residents, and interns are sleeping. If you have a heart attack, a brain bleed, your wound bursts open, or you develop a high fever, the nurse has to notice that and bring you the help you need. When the nurse wakes up the doctor on call, often someone low in the medical hierarchy system, the doctor doesn’t always respond graciously or with enthusiasm. Sometimes the doctor will say a groggy hello and hang up. Sometimes the doctor asks a nurse if she’s sure. Often doctors are rude. (What is said in the first three minutes after waking up doesn’t count). Since the nurse knows the patient is in danger, he/she has to persist against the opposition assertively.
One night, when I worked the night shift in a large, urban hospital, three people arrived on the floor and one of them had a gun. They were the relatives of a woman killed by a pimp who was at the moment a patient on my unit. The relatives intended to kill the pimp. The three nurses working that shift had to stop the gunman wandering the unit and looking for his intended victim. Sleeping patients under bedclothes resemble each other. The intruder could easily have shot the wrong person. Luckily, we had a red panic button at the desk to summon security.
I remember when AIDS took three months to diagnose and was often a death sentence. Universal precautions to protect patients and staff were instituted after the epidemic started. None of the nurses working with these early, very sick patients contracted HIV. Accidental needle sticks were the most common way for a staff member to be infected with the virus.
Patients who lopped off their fingers while logging in the Maine woods could have their fingers re-attached in a fifteen hour surgery. Nurses had to check the re-attached fingers every fifteen minutes for twelve hours and then every thirty minutes for the next twelve hours. The fingers of non-smokers were less likely to turn cold and blue.
After open heart surgery, patients returned to the intensive care unit, hypothermic, unable to breathe on their own, and subject to heart arrhythmias. The patients were constantly monitored and nurses often didn’t leave the bedside, not for nourishment or to pee. After a nurse spilled her can of soda on the monitoring equipment, we were not allowed to drink even water at the bedside. I remember a frequent flyer for bypass surgery, a restaurant owner who liked his cooking too much. I remember the firemen who received information from doctors and nurses about the causes of their heart disease. After the adrenaline rush of putting out a fire, the firemen would often sit around talking about the experience as they smoked and ate greasy foods.
Above all, I remember all the people I met and their innumerable ways of coping with the crises in their lives.