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Why Be a Nurse?

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DIAGNOSIS
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As a professor at a major research university, I am in a position to keep abreast of career trends. I see many of my students seek high-paying jobs in finance and consulting; I see others apply to law school, medical school, and competitive internships. But I have also noted a new trend that doesn't fit the high-paying, high-prestige profile: nursing. This week -- National Nurses Week -- seems a good time to think about what lies behind this trend.

Just in the past few months, two of my acquaintances have decided to abandon their current jobs and go into nursing. Rebecca Ingalls is a colleague at the university where I teach who received tenure last year. Yet she has decided to give up a guaranteed life-time job to become a nurse-midwife. She calls this "a clear and urgent shift in my responsibility to my world."

My other acquaintance, Katie Fitzpatrick, a younger woman and an Ivy League graduate, has worked for the three years since her graduation at a New York hedge fund. She doesn't dislike her job, she says, but she doesn't feel suited to it. "I had never before considered nursing," she told me, "but one day I came across an article about nurse practitioners and everything sort of clicked. It was the first time I said -- I want to do that!"

In addition to these two women, several of my best students say they are considering a degree in nursing.

If this is a trend, there are reasons for it. Nursing appears to be one of the nation's fastest growing occupations, with a rapidly aging population and increases in medial advances. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, nursing is one of the fastest growing professions in the country. Jobs for registered nurses are projected to increase by over 29 percent by 2020, the result of a 40 percent increase in demand.

Perhaps my friends and students are looking to nursing because it offers plentiful, relatively secure jobs in a precarious job market. But though this may be the allure of nursing for some people, it does not explain why my two acquaintances and some of my most talented students have chosen nursing when they could succeed at more prestigious or lucrative careers.

What is it, then, that is drawing people like this to the field?

A way to answer this question may be to consider what a nurse actually does. My husband, an oncologist, spends his day examining and diagnosing patients. Yet when I enter his office, it is the nurses I see. They are ushering patients from the waiting room into the examining room, drawing blood, taking blood pressure, making small talk. A chemotherapy session can last six or seven hours; during this time, the nurses are consistently present, adjusting IVs, checking vital signs, bringing juice and snacks. They talk to the patients about hydration, constipation, and diet. They listen to their fears about pain and death. They have an integrated and sustained connection to the people they deal with every day, a connection that cannot be duplicated in other jobs.

When I was researching my latest novel, Suzanne Davis Gets a Life, in which the protagonist develops breast cancer midway through the story, I spoke to a veteran nurse who gave me a detailed explanation of the treatment my heroine would undergo and the emotional and physical stresses she would face. As I wrote the novel, I imagined what it would be like to deal with a situation where technical issues combine with moments of drama, pathos, and humor. Trying to keep this perspective, I ended the book with a scene of exultant farce: Suzanne's nurses do a pole dance on the IV when she finishes treatment. I had heard about nurses who did this to celebrate the end of a patient's chemo, and the act seemed to encapsulate the range of expression that is open to nurses in caring for their patients.

While many professions involve working with the abstract, the derivative, and the representational, nurses deal with the concrete and the real. They monitor elemental excrescences and processes: urine and phlegm, breathing and swallowing. They provide palliatives for pain, and comfort in the face of injury and aging. They work with bodies at their most vulnerable, which is to say their most human. When so many jobs relegate life to the remote and the virtual, nursing, as my colleague explained, sees "the distance between the intellect and the body so beautifully diminishing."

This summarizes what may be the allure of nursing to so many talented and sensitive people: It ministers, in a sustained way, to the mind-body connection.

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