Sunday, December 12, 2010

Why We Are All Glad I Didn't Go to Nursing School

As a sixth grader, I already knew that I wanted to write, and in fact, I was writing…

Anson Berry is such a cutie!!! I have had a crush on him all year, but no one knows. Now he’s moving to Atlanta and he’ll never know!!!! (from my Kahlil Gibran diary, circa 1969)

Yes, I was a literary prodigy. However, it never occurred to me that I could make a living writing. Instead, my career ambitions depended on what I was reading that week. So, I wanted to be a patriotic seamstress (biography of Betsy Ross), or a governess (Jane Eyre ) or maybe a detective (Nancy Drew series). Every book brought a new ambition, but finally, I got my hands on a trashy romance novel involving a nurse and her tragically ill male patient. A heroic woman fighting the medical odds in a cute outfit? I was hooked. The notion stuck with me, and by the time I was in high school, I was truly interested in the nursing profession. I was not a great star in biology or any of the other science courses, but this did not worry me. What was important, I thought, was my interest in the well being of my fellow man.

My wise mother watched all of this and did not let her amusement show. She did remind me that I came home sick after frog dissection in biology class, that I was grossed out by my brother’s runny nose, and that I spent most of my time writing and editing the school newspaper. When I began requesting brochures from nursing schools, she took a different tack. She marched me down to the Red Cross and signed me up as a Candy Striper. For those you born after the 1970s, a Candy Stripper is a young female who is allowed to volunteer in hospitals in exchange for receiving a fetching nurse-like pinafore in a traditional red stripe. There was marketing genius in this idea. I went through the training and was issued the uniform. I was mildly disappointed by the color (blue stripes rather than red), but I was heartened by the idea that I was on my way towards a career in helping my fellow man.

My mother has been cleaning out her house recently, and gradually distributing keepsakes to all of us. She had saved my old candy striper uniform, so it now hangs in my closet. The Red Cross patch and my name tag are still affixed. The thing is tiny in every dimension. In preparation for my work in our local hospital, I believe that I called on my inner Betsy Ross and hemmed the skirt myself. It is so short that the fabric is turned under almost to the waistband. I wish I had a picture of myself in the entire get-up: white button down shirt under the pinafore, white hose, white tennis shoes, and a little nurse-like cap.

Coming into the hospital right before my first shift, I was cute but very nervous. For all my Nurse Nancy reading, I had never really been beyond the lobby in a hospital. An adult volunteer signed me in and took me up to my assigned floor. The elevator was old and scuffed, and the corridors, all painted an ugly yellow, did not look as clean as I had imagined. No one besides my escort seemed to notice that a shining new angel had arrived to help her fellow man.

On the third floor, I was assigned to a short nurse’s aide with greasy bangs, who greeted me an ideal line of dialogue: “Glad you’re here. We’re shorthanded today, so I need your help.” I knew instantly that I would be saving lives that day. Sure, my role in this would be a small one, but if all I did was hold the hand of one handsome young man in pain…

I spent the rest of the day changing sheets and distributing clean bedpans. I did not even get to roll the library cart from room to room and help patients choose books (this being the one task I could have done effectively). Everything smelled awful. My feet hurt. There were no cute patients. Everyone was mostly old and in pain, and well, sick. It was disturbing.

Towards the end of the day, the nurse’s aide asked me to help her change the sheets for a post-surgical patient who was unable to get out of the bed. This required stripping and remaking the bed one half at a time, rolling the woman onto one side and then the other, and quickly doing the job underneath her. We had covered this in our training, but the reality was daunting. The patient was large, her chest covered with an enormous bloody bandage, and in pain. She moaned and cursed every time we moved her. There were several whole minutes when I thought that one or both of us would end up on the floor. The aide kept saying (to the patient? to me?). “Now, now it’s not as bad as all that….,” but it was. It really was. By the time we finished, the patient was sweaty and pale, and I was done with the nursing profession.

I asked my mother recently how she knew that I wasn’t cut out for a medical career. She told me that she hadn’t known for sure that I would generally unable to function while witnessing the pain of others (not to mention so math-impaired that I risked overdosing my patients). However, she thought that it was a good idea for me to find out firsthand before I got too far down the road.

I did do many more volunteer shifts at the hospital that year, but I made sure they assigned me to the information desk in the lobby. I majored in English in college. Of course, I was correct when I assumed, at the ripe old age of 13, that you can’t really make a living writing. Still, I would have made a horrible nurse.

Lynn York is the author of The Piano Teacher (2004) and The Sweet Life (2007). She lives in Chapel Hill, NC. Her website is


Mary Jo said...

I loved reading this as I can picture you as your dreams of meeing a handsome intern were dashed by the stark reality of life at HP Memorial Hospital. Plus, we are all glad that you became a writer!! Little did you know that you were storing up experiences for later. PS. did you really have a Kahlil Gibran diary?

A Good Blog Is Hard to Find said...

Yes, I did have a Kahlil Gibran diary, MJ. It is still on my shelf. Interwoven with my embarrassing adolescent writings are Gibran's embarrassing platitudes. LY

Heidi Hobbs said...

I had a Kahlil Gibran diary and it is still hanging around somewhere in my house too. Heidi

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