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When nurses are referred to as angels, as sometimes happens in popular and professional literature, on television, and in advertising, it doesn't make me proud. When writers in nursing journals state that it takes compassion to be a nurse, that nursing is the sacrifice of oneself for others, and that nursing is a noble profession, I disagree. But I seem to be alone in this. Was I really the only one offended by the subtitle of the professional seminar I attended last summer-"The Magic and Wisdom of Nursing"? Nursing, in my experience, isn't magic.
When nurses see stereotyped media portrayals unbecoming to us, many write letters and sign petitions. But the angelic, noble, or magical nurse is also a stereotype. We sent letters when ER showed doctors firing nurses, but how many letters were sent in response to the JAG episode that focused on World War II nurses, entitled "Each of Us Angels"? Not many, which says to me that nurses prefer not to talk about who we really are.
And who are we, really? Nursing pays us to place the needs of others before our own. Over time, putting others first can lead to self-pity and resentment. But nurses don't talk about that, nor have I seen it written about in any nursing journal. Nurses' silence on this issue perpetuates not only the false image of the angelic nurse, but also our own dysfunction. Self-sacrifice as the road to nobility has never been good for nurses. It causes burnout and compassion fatigue. We don't talk about the cost of that self-sacrifice; nursing requires its members to keep its secrets.
I learned about being a nurse from the "Cherry Ames" books I read as a child. In the 1943 book, Cherry Ames, Student Nurse, author Helen Wells wrote: "Cherry wanted a profession of her own. More than that, she wanted to do vital work, work that the world urgently needs. She honest-to-goodness cared about people and she wanted to help them on a grand and practical scale. But did she have all it takes to be a nurse?" Nursing schools, hospital administrators, physicians, and patients all expect us to help "on a grand and practical scale." We expect it of ourselves. That so many nurses see nursing as a calling is a longstanding tradition that has nothing to do with the work we do. What is truly noble and beneficial is to put oneself first-to eat when hungry, rest when tired. But so many nurses don't even go to the bathroom when they need to.
I am a nurse. It is my job. I put on a uniform and comfortable shoes and punch a time clock. I have the education and experience to do for others what they cannot do for themselves. But it's the intimacy of the work that feeds the angel myth. I listen to patients, touch them, reassure them, help them eat and drink, assist them with bodily functions. They are often ashamed of their need for help, and they're grateful to be treated with respect. What patients don't understand is that to me theirs are just a bowel movement to document and emesis to measure, a routine part of my day. I don't exist on a higher plane because I work at the bedside. The work and the flexibility suit me. I meet interesting people from all over the world, and I learn something new every day. Sometimes it's clinical information critical to my work. Sometimes it's about what movie I should see.
But to call nursing a job rather than a calling isn't to diminish it. I will not stop touching lives if I refuse to call the work magic. I will not be a failure if I give up self-sacrifice for self-care. Nurses have not learned this lesson well. If we indeed were to put ourselves first, perhaps there wouldn't be a nursing shortage.
For many reasons, women and men choose nursing. What a radical notion: nurses claiming the human choice of a profession rather than giving angels the credit for our good works. Try this: take a look in the mirror, and repeat after me. "I am a nurse. I do a good job. That is enough."
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