1. O'Shaughnessy, Patrice


New York Times blogger finds her stories in nursing.


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Theresa Brown has done more writing as a nurse than she ever did in academia, and has even published a book. Brown, a former English professor, now writes for the New York Times "Well" blog, and her book, Critical Care:A New Nurse Faces Death, Life, and Everything in Between, is due out in June. She's been a nurse for just two and a half years.

Figure. Theresa Brow... - Click to enlarge in new windowFigure. Theresa Brown. Photo by Jeff Swenson.

"I thought someday, when I retire, I'll write a book reflecting on my career," Brown said. "I had left English behind . . . I never thought very creatively how to marry the two things. When it worked out, it became a dream come true."


Brown, 45, came late to nursing. Born in Illinois and raised in Springfield, Missouri, she earned a PhD in English from the University of Chicago and taught writing at Tufts University. After the birth of her son, Conrad, 13 years ago, she longed for a job where she was "expected to care about people, not instruct and grade them."


After a difficult pregnancy two years later with her twin daughters, Miranda and Sophia, she gained a new admiration for the midwives who helped her and for the nursing profession.


"Nursing doesn't get the respect it should, especially bedside nursing," she said. When her twins turned two years old she went back to school, and six years later she got her bachelor of science in nursing from the University of Pittsburgh, and a few months later, her RN license.


Currently she works at a hospital in Pennsylvania, on an oncology unit. She chose oncology because she felt it would allow her to have ongoing relationships with her patients, and the science and advances in cancer care seemed interesting and exciting.


In September 2008, she submitted an essay to the New York Times for its "Cases" column. "I came out of an experience and couldn't move on, and I thought, "I'm going to write this down,"" Brown said. The incident involved a patient who was about to be discharged. He started coughing up blood and suddenly died. "I'd been a nurse for only about six months and wasn't emotionally prepared for something that intense," Brown recalled.


Soon afterward, a publisher made her an offer to write a book, and then she was in contact with Tara Parker-Pope of "Well" and began writing for the New York Times blog.


Due to Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act regulations, Brown doesn't identify her hospital on the blog or in her book, and changes the names and physical descriptions of people she writes about. But, she acknowledges, "I'm walking a legal line with confidentiality. There have definitely been flare-ups with higher-ups."


Brown's blog entries, posted every two weeks, generate dozens-sometimes hundreds-of comments. Half come from nurses and physicians, who relate to her stories of being threatened by a distraught relative or of spending a "snow day" working in the hospital. Many come from patients or their families, who see themselves in her entries or just want to tell their own experiences with cancer and death. Once, Brown wrote about being asked to shave a patient's head so he could avoid the slow, frustrating loss of hair. Those stories spark remarks like the one she got from a physician who told her, "It reminded me that patients are people, individuals." She's pleased that "the blog and the comments are part of a big conversation about nursing."


Like her blog posts, Brown's book is an easy, touching read, and it's not just for nurses. But nurses would appreciate it most, especially the lowdown on the profession, such as when she speaks of nurses "eating their young"-the dirty little secret of bullying. She said she became driven about the book. "Once I started writing it, I had all these stories, I wouldn't be able to sleep," she said.


Her previous profession has helped her nursing, the fact that she's able to communicate, be clear, be direct, with patients. And being in her 40s, she found dealing with physicians "maybe easier than for a nurse in her 20s."


Brown credits her children with being her anchor, and for making it possible to find joy in her patients and connect with them. She's still asked why she made the change from summers off to such long hours and physically hard work.


"I like it," she said simply. "I never thought, "Wow, I wish I was back in the library looking up articles." I love being in the midst of life. I'm glad I'm a nurse."


Patrice O'Shaughnessy