By ABIGAIL ZUGER, M.D.
When a book is heavy with glossy photographs, you seldom expect too much from its words. In “The American Nurse,” though, it’s the narrative that hits you in the solar plexus.
Take the comments of Jason Short, a hospice nurse in rural Kentucky. Mr. Short started out as an auto mechanic, then became a commercial trucker. “When the economy went under,” he says, “I thought it would be a good idea to get into health care.” But a purely pragmatic decision became a mission: Mr. Short found his calling among the desperately ill of Appalachia and will not be changing careers again.
“Once you get a taste for helping people, it’s kind of addictive,” he says, dodging the inspirational verbiage that often smothers the healing professions in favor of a single incontrovertible point.
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Some of the 75 nurses who tell their stories in this coffee-table book headed into the work with adolescent passion; others backed in reluctantly just to pay the bills. But all of them speak of their difficult, exhilarating job with the same surprised gratitude: “It’s a privilege and honor to do what I do,” says one. “I walk on sacred ground every day.”
They hail from a few dozen health care settings around the country, ranging from large academic institutions like Johns Hopkins in Baltimore to tiny facilities like the Villa Loretto Nursing Home in Mount Calvary, Wis., home to 50 patients and a collection of goats, sheep and other animals on a therapeutic farm. Some nurses are administrators, some staff wards or emergency rooms, some visit patients at home. Many are deeply religious, a few are members of the military, and a handful of immigrants were doctors in their home countries.
All describe unique professional paths in short first-person essays culled from video interviews conducted by the photographer Carolyn Jones. Their faces beam out from the book in Ms. Jones’s black-and-white headshots, a few posing with a favorite patient or with their work tools — a medevac helicopter, a stack of prosthetic limbs or a couple of goats.
But even the best photographs are too static to capture people who never stop moving once they get to work. For a real idea of what goes on in their lives, you have to listen to them talk.
Here is Mary Helen Barletti, an intensive care nurse in the Bronx: “My whole life I’ve marched to a the beat of a different drummer. I used to have purple hair, which I’d blow-dry straight up. I wore tight jeans, high heels and — God forgive me — fur (now I am an animal rights activist). My patients loved it. They said I was like sunshine coming into their room.”
Says Judy Ramsay, a pediatric nurse in Chicago: “For twelve years I took care of children who would never get better. People ask how I could do it, but it was the most fulfilling job of my life. We couldn’t cure these kids, but we could give them a better hour or even a better minute of life. All we wanted to do was make their day a little brighter.”
Says Brad Henderson, a nursing student in Wyoming: “I decided to be a nurse because taking care of patients interested me. Once I started, nursing just grabbed me and made me grow up.”
Says Amanda Owen, a wound care nurse at Johns Hopkins: “My nickname here is ‘Pus Princess.’ I don’t talk about my work at cocktail parties.”
John Barbe, a hospice nurse in Florida, sums it up: “When I am out in the community and get asked what I do for a living, I say that I work at Tidewell Hospice, and there’s complete silence. You can hear the crickets chirping. It doesn’t matter because I love what I do; I can’t stay away from this place.”
The volume is not entirely about selfless service: It was underwritten by Fresenius-Kabi, a German health care corporation and leading supplier of intravenous drugs in the United States. Presumably, crass public relations motives lurk somewhere in the background. But that’s no real reason to be meanspirited about the result, a compelling advertisement for an honorable profession.
Young people with kind hearts and uncertain futures might just sit themselves down with the book, or wander through the Web site featuring its video interviews, www.americannurseproject.com, and see what happens.