Soy una enfermera. I am a nurse.
When I entered Nicaragua and was asked by the customs agent what I did for work, I responded with ease. In fact, it was some of little Spanish I remembered from high school. Content with my response, she smiled, stamped my passport, and waved me on.
Being a nurse is my profession, but it’s also part of my identity. After studying for years at university to obtain my bachelor’s degree, passing the Canadian Registered Nurse Examination, donning scrubs and a tag bearing my name, enduring consecutive 12-hour shifts on my feet, and working one of the hardest jobs I can imagine, I’ve earned this title.
I’m not the only one that thinks that. The law agrees with me.
The word nurse is a legally protected title in Canada, and for good reason. As a patient, you wouldn’t want just anyone calling themselves a nurse. There’s a lot of meaning behind that tiny little word, and that meaning changes depending on who you ask.
When people, including my fellow travellers, ask what it is that I do for work, my answer elicits a wide variety of responses.
“No wonder you’re so nice!”
“So what’s the grossest thing you’ve ever seen?”
“I guess there’s not a lot of thinking at your job.”
“Do you want to go on to be a doctor?”
“That’s really good of you.”
These are all true things people have said to me about my profession. Each statement makes it clear that the speaker has an image in their mind of who a nurse is and what they do. Some of them are flattering, others less so, but the worst response I ever received was this:
Random dude at the bar: “So what do you do?”
Me: “I’m a nurse.”
Bar dude: “Oh, that’s cute.”
My work was cute. As though I were a child presenting him with a pretty picture that I drew instead of a professional woman speaking to another adult about my career.
Somehow in this man’s eyes the noble profession that I spent years training for had become reduced to a word I use to describe my dog’s bizarre sleeping positions.
Sweet, nice, endearing, but not important.
Now let me tell you about the best response I’ve ever received.
During the final year of my bachelor’s degree, I was working as an undergraduate nurse employee in cardiology at the University of Alberta Hospital. It was a steep learning curve and there were some days that I felt like I had found my one true calling in life, and others that I went home crying from the stress of my role, wondering why I ever chose to pursue this profession.
On one of my rare weekends off, I headed to my favourite lunch spot where I met a friendly middle-aged woman in the line. After some small talk about the weather, our conversation progressed to this:
Her: “What do you do?”
Me: “I’m a nurse.”
Her: “Wow! Do you work in the hospital?”
I told her that I did. The look on her face was one of awe and respect.
Her: “Can I hug you?!”
I told her that I was a nurse and she instantly wanted to hug me.
I don’t know what her story was. I’m not sure if she had been admitted to the hospital or a loved one had and received exceptional care provided by excellent nurses. I don’t know if her son or daughter was studying nursing. I don’t know if she herself was a nurse. All I know is that this woman saw my job the same way that I saw my job.
She got what I meant when I said I was a nurse.
No, I don’t expect every person I meet to hug me when they learn what I do, but I do wish that more people understood how intense nursing can be.
I wish people knew how hard we work to keep you and your loved ones well. I wish you knew how much knowledge and skill from nursing staff goes into your care. I wish you knew how hard we can be on ourselves. I wish you knew how vital nurses are to every aspect of the health care system. I wish you knew that I don’t want to be a doctor, I want to be who I am- a nurse.
I wish you knew that my career isn’t cute, it’s demanding, heartbreaking, thrilling, and gratifying, sometimes all at once.
This is why we need a National Nursing Week. So that everyone who has been, will be, or knows someone who has been cared for by a nurse has a better understanding and appreciation for the incredible people that do this job.
To all of the amazing nurses out there, happy nursing week!