Beautiful Unbroken: One Nurse's Life

Nursing Book Club

Beautiful Unbroken: One Nurse's Life

What it feels like to be a nurse

By Mary Jane Nealon (Graywolf, 2011)
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Reviewed By Christine Contillo, RN, BSN

Beautiful Unbroken: One Nurse's LifeWe all become nurses for our own reasons. We’re following someone else in the family, we’ve seen nursing romanticized on television, or maybe a teacher told us it would be a good idea. Mary Jane Nealon is the author of Beautiful Unbroken and what she recalls about the pull of becoming a healer or caregiver is “the hard yellow of the Tekakwitha book, the way she knelt over the Indians suffering from smallpox…” and she wants to experience these feelings for herself.

Yet when her own brother is diagnosed with hemangiopersacoma, an aggressive tumor within the central nervous system,  she deliberately places herself hundreds of miles away. This small book is her attempt to understand, to explain and to ask forgiveness from the universe for that choice.

Nursing was all around her. Her Aunt Frances was a nurse, and the author lives in a metropolitan area surrounded by great hospitals. In the 1960s and 1970s it was what young women did — they nursed, they became secretaries or they taught. She was a great reader as a child, and immersed herself in stories. She remembers Clara Barton, Molly Pitcher and Kateri Tekakwitha.

Nealon wanted what all good Catholic girls wanted — to become a saint, or a nun; she wants to “join them in good deeds.” And she does. She practices “caring gestures” and “laying hands on an imaginary sufferer.”

However, soon the tide turns and she herself is the one who suffers. Nealon practices her chosen profession in many different arenas and becomes successful in each. She details her thoughtful yet draining relationships with patients: teaching an 81-year-old farmer how to swallow again after a stroke, or purchasing K-mart underpants for a 15-year-old patient from “over the mountain” who has rectal bleeding.

Eventually it’s the 1980s and her caregiving extends to the beginning of the AIDS crisis, to those dying abandoned and alone. She steps in to fill their void. Throughout this time she continues to suffer and avoid her own extensive personal losses.

Beautiful Unbroken differs from the average nursing memoir because of the language used and the way it is written. Even though she had never attended college, Nealon begins to take classes specifically in writing. She realizes that she has access to singular moments of grief and loss and wants to do more than just share them. It becomes important to her that she convey the emotion behind them; she is better able to bear these losses by expressing them.  

She becomes a poet and begins to attend writing conferences improving her writing and building important relationships. Ultimately her life as a nurse is intertwined with her life as a writer — each managing to sustain the other. Her friends become the poets and writers she meets, and eventually with their encouragement she earns an MFA. She finds her talent lies not just in healing but also in writing about it.

This is a wonderful raw book about loss and healing, her own and others. Nealon shares with us her entire career as a professional caregiver, seemingly holding back nothing of her feelings about herself, her family, her friends, her choices and her regrets. Some may find that nursing for them is just a job; clearly the author holds it in much higher regard. A nurse is what she is, not just what she does. The way she expresses herself is what elevates this small book beyond what we expect of most memoirs.

My highest praise is this: while I’m always happy to share the books I recommend with others, this is one I would be heartbroken to lose.  


Christine Contillo, RN, BSN is a public health nurse who suggests joining a book club as a reason to put down trashy magazines and look smart on the subway.

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