nursing us

In my grandparents’ house in North Dakota, there were photos of their six children arranged on the dining room wall in birth order.  My mom was first, then her three sisters, followed by the two boys.

Mom was the only one of the girls who didn’t appear in the white uniform and hat that was standard in a nursing school graduation picture of the day.

In the three generations of our family tree starting with my mom’s siblings, there have been eleven nurses (including spouses).  In addition, there have been quite a number of others with careers and volunteer activities related to health care.

I’ve often wondered the impact that the photos had on those of us that passed through that room over the years.  We are influenced in many ways by our role models, through the images of them that resonate with us over time and the lives that we watch them lead.

A few years ago, I arrived at a hotel in Baltimore to find a very busy lobby.  It turned out that there was a convention of nurses in town.  The lines were long, but there were smiles and laughter, and apparently none of the angst that usually accompanies such crowded conditions.

I was meeting someone for dinner.  She arrived later, when it was even busier, and while we were eating, she said, “Aren’t nurses just the nicest people?”


In the intervening years, when my mom’s health declined and I was treated for cancer, I spent a great deal of time with nurses.  (Interestingly, I ended up going to Sanford Health because one of my cousins who is a nurse encouraged Sue and me to visit there when I was trying to decide how to proceed.)  Only a couple of times did any of those interactions with nurses leave something to be desired.  I’d be hard-pressed to make that statement about any other group of people, which is saying something, since nurses often see us when we are at our worst.

“You have no idea,” said one nurse when I asked about the difficult encounters that she had experienced.  She wouldn’t elaborate; I can only imagine what it’s like to be on the front lines when patients and family members are at their most vulnerable and emotional.

Female nurses still outnumber men by about ten to one in the United States, a ratio that is changing more slowly than in some other professions.  It is a bit of a shock to have a beefy, bearded nurse, but you soon find out his heart is in the right place too.

A Wall Street Journal article about six nurses who came to the States from the Philippines in the 1970s reflects the changes in their jobs over that time, propelled by new technologies that improved care, but which caused shorter hospital stays and less time to bond with patients.  Still, as one of the nurses said, “The fundamentals of nursing haven’t changed.  We care as we did forty years ago.”

While lacking the formal training, Sue has the heart of a nurse.  We started calling her “Florence” (for Florence Nightingale) because of how she can make people feel better in times of trauma and stress.  Once, when my mom wasn’t feeling well, I asked her whether she wanted someone to visit.  She said, “Well, it depends on who it is.”  Translated, “Please send Sue.”

There is nothing that can compare to having someone come to nurse your pain, of whatever type and whatever cause.  I am reminded of a very short song by Jethro Tull, “Nursie”:

Tip-toes in silence ’round my bed
And quiets the raindrops overhead
With her everlasting smile
She stills my fever for a while

Oh, nursie, dear
I’m glad you’re here
To brush away my pain

On Tuesday, my aunt Elaine (we called her “Sis”) was laid to rest.  As you can tell from her obituary, which includes a copy of that nursing school picture, she went on caring for people even after her formal retirement, and lived life fully right up to the card party she hosted shortly before her death.

Here’s to the nurses that brush away our pain.

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