True Stories of Becoming a Nurse

Nursing Book Club

True Stories of Becoming a Nurse

By Lee Gutkind (InFact Books, 2013)
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Reviewed By Christine Contillo, RN, BSN

I must admit that I’m a sucker for a good nursing story. I could talk all day about the benefits of my nursing education, the patients I’ve come to love and healthcare politics, but when I’m talking to other nurses, it eventually always comes back to swapping stories.

Lee Gutkind is a fabulous editor and a stalwart of creative nonfiction and each of the nurse writers represented in his new anthology, I Wasn’t Strong Like This When I Started Out, carries his or her weight. Open this book to any chapter and it’s like another nurse is sitting beside you, telling you a personal story.

Even the language of the title made me want to delve in. As a nurse, I see all of us as capable, valuable, independent and strong. It’s like the old adage, “Lead, follow or get out of the way” — in our own way, we lead the vanguard of patient care. We’re strong advocates for the people who need our help and if we can’t handle that, we generally find ourselves in other careers.

Who doesn’t like to swap true stories? When talking about a patient that codes unexpectedly, who among us hasn’t had one who coded even more unexpectedly? When we talk about how a doctor treats us badly, what nurse hasn’t been treated even worse at some point? Telling stories over coffee in the break room is what we do, it’s how we learn and it’s often the first step in taking pride in what we’ve accomplished and finding out just how far we can go.

The piece by Pamela Baker, “Individually Identifiable,” speaks to the impact of HIPAA and confidentiality agreements on that vital dialogue. If we are no longer allowed to trade important information professionally, how do we learn? It’s a valid question and one we all struggle with.

What about becoming a nurse? Graduating from nursing school and even passing the boards doesn’t automatically make you a nurse. It can be a gradual process for the slow learners, but for others, it’s that “A-ha!” moment when you realize you have started to think in SOAP notes — somehow, that textbook knowledge has found its way into practical use. When you have finally started to automatically evaluate what you’ve done in professional terms, you’re able to pass your knowledge on to the nurses on the next shift.

Thomas Schwarz’s “The Haunting” deals with coming to grips with post-traumatic stress disorder and finding another sort of calling as a nurse outside the hospital setting. He concludes that we don’t just reevaluate our patients, we continually reevaluate ourselves.

Throughout this volume, nurses look back on their careers, why they chose their particular field and why they left others. “Careening Toward Reunion” finds Nina Gaby trying to lose weight to meet her old classmates, reminding her that her family had thought she was throwing her talent away (as did mine!). Other writers tell you how they handle death, both on the job and in their own families. Patricia Nugent’s “The Nurse Whispered” observes the way nurses treat patients in hospice situations.

We learn about each nurse’s backgrounds, why he or she went into nursing and what they each hoped to achieve. Some just wanted a job and a steady income, but grew to really care for their patients. Others knew that nursing had called them and they had no choice. Some of these nurses live in cities, others in the country; they work in hospitals and in home care settings. In fact, they are all of us.

Each one of these pieces is written by a fine author, and many of the writers in this volume have been published previously in other collections. Some of these nurses have pursued writing professionally and all are well-qualified to convey something we already know: Nurses are a special breed.

There are over 2 million of us in the U.S. and we come in all shapes and sizes, but we are all able to hear each other. This book is one valuable outlet for those voices. 

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