1. Contillo, Christine BS, BSN, RN-C


The job ain't waitressing, honey-but it does take smarts and empathy.


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When I began nursing school I was confident that I'd enjoy being a nurse because I already liked being a waitress. I imagine that you're already groaning, but hear me out. I had traits that served me well when I put food and drinks on the table: I was smart and organized, I learned quickly, I was usually able to rescue disastrous situations, and I liked people and wanted to make them happy.

Figure. Illustration... - Click to enlarge in new windowFigure. Illustration by Jennifer Rodgers.

That last characteristic is a secret that most of us nurses keep to ourselves as we emphasize the more cerebral nursing traits-the critical thinking, the autonomy, the professional skills. When I was a waitress, I liked pointing out which daily special was tastiest and being honest about whether the cake was really fresh. Nursing gave me a chance to give more important advice-and a role in which I was genuinely trusted. Senior citizens asked why they needed a flu shot, mothers wanted to know if breast-feeding was better, neighbors brought over children with cuts to ask if they needed stitches. I had my license, I was an RN, and therefore they believed I knew what I was talking about.


At parent-teacher night one year a father I knew told me that when he'd left the house his son had a fever, was complaining about a stiff neck and headache, and seemed to be getting a rash. "Get home and take him straight to the ER," I almost shouted. Sure enough, the son had meningitis. Years later, when he came to my house as a teenager to take my daughter to a party, the son told me that his father liked to say that I'd probably saved his life.


As a waitress, I was there, serving tables, while people celebrated their important events-birthdays, anniversaries, showers, and the dreaded proms. Nurses, however, don't just observe from the sidelines. Nurses enter into a relationship with their patients. They step daily into critical, life-changing moments that may be remembered by everyone present.


Over the last 30 years I've spent wonderfully intimate times with strangers who I know I'll never forget. Sometimes I wonder where they are now-a boarder baby I rocked during the AIDS crisis, an ancient World War I veteran in a bare-bones rooming house who always wore his only suit and clean shirt on the day I came to visit. The man, dying of cancer, who showed me a photograph of his family (at which point I realized that I'd dated his son in college), the immigrant I visited every morning on my way to work to give him daily observed therapy for active TB-the one who grabbed my hand, shook it, and said, "I'll never forget you, Mama."


There was even one young man I still think about who visited my city clinic years ago. He removed his shirt and showed me ragged scars across his chest, remnants from torture in Eastern Europe. He'd claimed political asylum here; now only a lack of a vaccination record stood in the way of continuing his education. I hope that the immunizations we gave helped put the past behind him, but I'll never know for sure.


Where but nursing do we share such encounters? We're tantalized by the fact that we can't predict when they'll occur. One minute you might be thinking about coffee and making morning rounds and the next something inexplicable is happening that will stay with you for the rest of your life.


When I entered nursing, I knew I had "the right stuff" to be successful. But when I look back over my career, back to the days when I started out as a waitress, I realize that the rewards of nursing are so much greater. I admit that I've worked my share of night shifts, missed holiday meals, fought for raises that didn't come, cleaned up messes that no one should have to see. In the end, though, I always believe that I'm the lucky one. Maybe my days as a waitress only served to point me in the right direction, but I think they also let me know that when staffing is low, serving lunch with a smile is still OK.