“Critical Care: A New Nurse Faces Death, Life, and Everything in Between” by Theresa Brown (Harper Collins, 2010), is a deeply personal book that details the transformation of an English professor into a oncology nurse. Honest and self-disclosing, Brown describes her decision to leave the cozy world of academia behind in search of more meaning in her professional life, embracing the mantle of “nurse”, her academic colleagues watching in disbelief as she abandons tenure for a stethoscope and scrubs.
Channeling her love of writing through the filter of her first year as a nurse on the oncology floor, Brown relates to the reader the challenges and joys of being a nurse and a writer, two identities with which I deeply resonate.
“People will say that being a nurse-writer is an odd choice, and I’ve even taken to calling myself a hybrid. But the combination works really well for me. Writing about nursing helps me to understand the intricacies of the job better than I would otherwise. Being a nurse who writes means that I pay attention at work in a more intense way than I used to.”
Brown uses her command of prose and her keen insight to paint a picture of nursing in all its glory and gore:
“Working as a floor nurse is messy and stressful, but I wouldn’t exchange it for a dream classroom full of well-read, hardworking, intellectually curious college students---not in a million years, not ever. For where else can I go to sample daily the richness of life in all its profound chaos? Where else can I comfort a cheeky eleven-year-old boy who has to confront his own mortality earlier than any of us ever should?”
And when confronted with the frightening novelty of life as a new nurse, Brown writes lines that could send a chill through the spine of any potential hospital patient:
“My challenge was figuring out what U didn’t know and how I could most efficiently learn it within the confines of a system so byzantine and idiosyncractic that at moments I really would have liked to bang my head on a wall in frustration, except that I never had time.”
Far from glamorizing the work of a floor nurse in a hospital, Brown makes it glaringly clear that doctors, patients, other nurses, and the medical system itself can often work against a novice nurse who simply wants to perform his or her job and learn what it is he or she is supposed to do in the course of a day. Whether facing a hemorrhaging patient or an inexperienced doctor equally fumbling through the novelty of a new career, Brown relates clearly how simultaneously maddening and sublime her work can be.
“When I first started as a nurse, the hospital seemed like the least ‘normal’ place I had ever been. We stick tubes in every possible human orifice, slice people open to save their lives, fill their veins with poison, measure their urine, count their bowel movements. The craziness is normal, and the only thing’s that’s really normal is the fundamental humanness that unites us all. Sometimes a patient needs his bum wiped twelve times in half as many hours, and sometimes he needs a Bible. Soup to nuts; shit to death---we’re all on the same continuum.”
Frustration abounds in Brown’s interactions with the medical and nursing worlds, and she minces no words about the nurses and doctors who eat their young.
“Like people from low-status groups everywhere, some nurses take their frustrations out on other nurses rather than trying to improve their own position. It’s not surprising that it happens, but it’s especially poignant that people in a caring profession sometimes have such a hard time caring for one another.”
But when it comes down to brass tacks, Brown’s nursing career is about her patients, her respect for them, and her desire to make things right even amidst a system that lets her down.
“I do not have time to chatter with rage, and no one else would have time to listen, but I have felt my eyes get hot and angry when my patients are not treated as I would like, and I will fight to make things better.”
When writing about death, Brown is unequivocal in her bafflement and her awe. She writes, “When you see a corpse, you learn what it means for something to really end.” Writing further about death, she adds:
“Death is the final stage (in that process), since in death the person’s body remains, but her spirit, or soul, the force that animated her and made her who she was, is gone forever. Perhaps if our bodies vanished when we died, death would be easier; part of the puzzlement of death is that the body stays, but the person we knew and loved will never come back.”
Brown uses her love of language and her love of nursing equally well in this book that spans just under 200 pages. While a novice or wannabe nurse may be taken aback by Brown’s raw honesty about her first year of nursing experience on the front lines, her forthright descriptions of what it takes to be a nurse and what’s wrong with the system at large are important lessons to hear.
This author describes the work and wisdom of nursing so eloquently, verbalizing clearly the caring, the science, and the humanity of her work. Her book is a gift to the nursing profession and those who respect it.
“At times this caring will ask so much of you that being devoted to the job is the only thing that will enable you to keep doing it….Each patient comes to us a blank canvas or a solid block of stone, and at first we will make only the simplest of brushstrokes, the most obvious chisels…….My masterpieces are all internal: ease given to a suffering human heart.”