Critical Care: A New Nurse Faces Death, Life and Everything in Between (2012)

Nursing Book Club

Critical Care: A New Nurse Faces Death, Life and Everything in Between (2012)

Remembering the first time

By Theresa Brown (Harper One, 2010)
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Reviewed By Christine Contillo, RN, BSN

I’d resisted reading Critical Care: A New Nurse Faces Death, Life and Everything in Between for a number of reasons. What does a new nurse have to tell me that I don’t already know about a profession I’ve practiced for 30-plus years? Why should I read about her life instead of writing about my own?

The answer is, “Because she’s very, very good.” In fact, her book brought tears to my eyes on the subway, in front of strangers. I’d recommend this book to all nurses who want to remember just what it was like to be starting out, scared and intimately involved with the critical care of strangers.

Theresa Brown says that having kids changed her life: It was pregnancy and delivery that introduced her to midwives, with the subsequent revelation that she could do that, too. Despite the fact that she was already successfully teaching writing at the college level, there was no debate for her about whether of not she should go to medical school. Right from the start, she realized it was nursing that she wanted. I’m sure every patient she has treated from that day forward has validated her career choice.

First Death

The chapter headings are concepts we can all relate to from starting out as a nurse: “First Death,” “A Day on the Floor” and “Condition A” (what we would know as a code).

I remember how terribly unprepared I was to speak with a family member about a death. I came from a stoic, stiff-upper-lip Midwestern family and had to explain a loss to a Hispanic mother in a crowded inner-city hospital. No one taught “cultural competence” back then, and I was possibly as surprised by her wailing as she was by my emotional reserve. Let’s hope that now we are all better equipped to meet our patients’ spiritual needs — or at least to know when to reach out for help and how to get it.

The chapter “Openings” also struck a chord with me. At my first job, when I still had little confidence in my ability to help anyone, I was one of only two RNs on a 60-bed floor, barely able to do much beyond mixing and hanging the IV meds in their glass bottles during my night shift. I didn’t understand that it was that floor in that hospital that was the problem, and that what amounted to abuse of the staff wasn’t particularly indicative of the general culture of nursing.

Just as Brown recognized that there were greener pastures (in the form of a floor with a more supportive staff for a beginner), I left for another hospital with better staffing. Should that be the lesson that we all have to learn: that no one will listen to us and our best option is to jump ship? Or should management have learned by now that constant turnover doesn’t help anyone, including the patients?

Doing What You Love

Author Brown has the luxury of being able to do two things she loves: work part time as a bedside nurse and then be paid to write about it. Many of us barely have time to work and raise our families, much less be able to use our skills in creative ways.

Theresa Brown gives us a lot to think about and a lot to be proud of. I’m of the “sisterhood and brotherhood is powerful” school of thought, and I’m so glad that Theresa is (figuratively) a part of my family.  

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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