Critical Care: A New Nurse Faces Death, Life and Everything in Between

Nursing Book Club

Critical Care: A New Nurse Faces Death, Life and Everything in Between

By Karen Buley, RN, BSN
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New York Times contributor Theresa Brown has gifted us with her memoir, Critical Care: A New Nurse Faces Death, Life, and Everything in Between. A former Tufts University English professor, Brown writes that the births of her son and twin daughters were the impetus for her career change from academia to nursing.

We join this journey during Brown’s final shift as a student nurse where, as she provides care for an 11-year-old leukemia patient, her decision to become a nurse is affirmed. That night, she also realizes that because of her own young children, it’s hard to take care of kids.

Brown obtains a job on an oncology unit working mainly day shift, quite a feat for a new grad! Beginning with orientation, she shares with us her challenges, her lessons learned, and her conflicting emotions of angst and autonomy.

We read about her first death, “a professional rite of passage,” and her own slip and fall two days later when she transitions from being nurse to patient. Eight weeks on crutches; three months of physical therapy; and time off from floor nursing, followed by light duty, are softened by the thought that, unlike her patient, at least she’s alive.

When Brown is back on the floor, she returns to the stress of codes, Condition A’s, and the day-to-day juggling of hospital nursing.

The “Normal Craziness”

She eloquently describes the fullness of patient care. Not only does she assess, educate and provide physical care and emotional support, she also takes precious time to listen to Springsteen with one patient, and to scour two utility rooms and the chapel to find a Bible for another. She writes that though hospitals seem crazy, “the craziness is normal, and the only thing that’s really normal is the fundamental humanness that unites us all.”

Especially poignant throughout the book are vignettes about communicating with others. Ms. Brown describes learning to do what she wasn’t taught in nursing school (how to talk with patients and families about death) and about unlearning what she was taught (it is okay to sometimes talk with patients about her personal life). She tells us, “If a conversational opening arises with a patient, I take it. It could be a chance for me to lead him back to his own humanity. ”

She writes about the challenges of paging the hierarchical layers of interns, residents and attending physicians,  about the complexity of the job we do, and how sometimes we can’t leave our work behind us when we go home. Her description of answering her children’s questions about cancer, death and her own mortality offers another touching example of doing what seems right — even if that rightness is in direct contrast to what we’ve been taught.

Do You Remember?

Brown weaves the richness of her first year of nursing in a way that will inspire you to remember your first year — and subsequent years — and to reminisce about those patients, families and co-workers you hold forever in your hearts.

Whether new or veteran nurses, the stories in Critical Care remind us to embrace life, and to take good care. Not only of our patients, but of ourselves and each other.  

Karen Buley, RN, BSN is an obstetrics nurse who recently edited a collection of stories by nurses, Nurses on the Run: Why They Come, Why They Stay.

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