When Michael Brown gave up on his dream of writing the Great American Novel a few years ago, it was almost natural that he choose a nursing career.
First of all, an older sister was already a nurse (another sister has since entered the field). Second, the Philadelphia native, living with a friend near Hagerstown, had already scoured the wants ads for work to bring in some money while trying to write. He took a job as a nurse's aide at a psychiatric hospital near Hagerstown. He liked it so much he shelved his writing plans and went back to Philadelphia for his nursing degree.
But even with his R.N. finally in hand, the writing spark refused to go out. And thus, Mr. Brown, now working as a psychiatric nurse in the Affective and Eating Disorders Unit at Johns Hopkins Hospital, has finally gotten that old fire burning again. Ivy Books has recently published his "Nurses: The Human Touch," a probing look at the nursing profession that has occupied his spare hours for the last several years. Much of the book is told through the eyes of the 50 nurses he interviewed, and covers the dramatic changes the profession has gone through in recent years.
With the tables turned, Mr. Brown recently sat down and answered an interviewer's questions about those changes and his career as a nurse.
Q: All right, the question most people probably ask you: Why nursing as opposed to becoming a doctor?
A: To be a doctor, the thing you need more than anything, certainly more than brains, is the ability to commit to something and really stick with it. I was 28 at the time. It wasn't something I felt I could do.
Q: Are there a lot of men in nursing?
A: The national average is 3 to 4 percent. But some days at Hopkins people even joke, "Hey, we're in a majority today!"
Q: Why don't more men go into nursing?
A: Probably because people generally see nursing as a low-status, low-power kind of position.
Q: Is it?
A: I think nurses feel undervalued and misunderstood. They would like people to understand what they do and why they do it, and how difficult it is.
Q: Do you bristle at the term male nurse?
A: No. It's kind of funny. It usually comes in this context: "Oh, so you're not a doctor?" "No, I'm your nurse." "Oh, so you're a male nurse." As if it's some difference. I say, "Yeah, I'm a male nurse."
Q: Do female nurses resent male nurses?
A: A lot tell me that males get more respect. I asked one of them, "Why do you think a doctor would listen to me more than you?" And she said, "Because you're probably bigger than most doctors. And they're probably afraid you're gonna beat them up."
Q: How did the book idea occur to you?
A: A few years ago I was reading a book about cops. It said cops have always told the best stories. And I thought I know lots of nurses who tell great stories.
Q: What's your favorite story from your book?
A: I tell about a nurse who had a patient, a woman, dying with cancer. She had a tumor in her carotid artery and instead of dying at home she wanted to die in the hospital. She gave orders that she not be disturbed in any way. One night her artery started bleeding. The nurse was drenched in blood, but she had orders not to do anything for this woman. She sat and held her hand and begged the woman to let her help. But the woman just stared at her for 20 minutes while she died. After it was over the nurse's supervisor never said, "Gee, you really did a great job, that was really a tough one." The expectation was "you will do your job," and when something really horrible and traumatic happens there is this feeling of "well, if you can't handle it, maybe you shouldn't be here."
Q: Is that the reality?
A: I guess that's always the reality in any profession. I think the point she was making was this situation was above and beyond, because the nurse wasn't allowed to do anything.
Q: Who is the book aimed at?
A: Nurses, but also the general public, so that they will see what nursing is. The image says they are supposed to be the handmaidens of physicians. In most TV shows, nurses are just background, where they walk around and say, "Yes doctor, I'll get that for you." Nurses want to be understood.
Q: I understand one publisher rejected the book saying, "We thought nurses lived sexier lives than is portrayed here."
A: That's true. You know, there was a scene on "St. Elsewhere" once. They had a head nurse telling her staff, "It is not a nurse's job to relieve her male patient's sexual needs." It was one of the most insulting things I've ever seen. On TV or the movies nurses are portrayed as either "Hot Lips" Houlihan, or else they're all just [sleeping with] doctors. As if that's all they live for.
Q: Your book suggests nurses can get too involved with their patients.
A: Nurses are very co-dependent. The behaviors of co-dependents are basically nice things, like taking care of people. But what turns it into a negative is the subjugation of the self to the needs of others. That's what nursing has always done. You still see it in new nurses: people who just constantly have to FTC give of themselves.
Q: How do you avoid that?
A: One thing nursing stresses is trying to get people to take care of themselves. But a lot of nurses like the dependence. They get their sense of self-worth by being needed. And nursing administrators are geniuses at manipulating that.
Q: Having said that, do you enjoy being a nurse?
A: Yeah, for the most part I do.
Q: What about writing? Another book?
A: I think I'll probably write again. But it's like exercise. Once you do it, it's like, "Gee, I got that out of my system."