It's just the nearness of you...nurses
January 7, 2004 -- Tonight's episode of the CBS sitcom Becker, which focuses on the regret of nurse Margaret Wyborn (Hattie Winston) at not having become a singer instead, ends up as a paean of sorts to the character's worth as both a nurse and a singer. But consistent with the rest of the series, the vision of nursing is of a low-skilled, subordinate job that mainly requires compassion, logistical skills and a lack of squeamishness. Viewers with long memories may recall that Winston also played nurse Toni Gillette on CBS' comparatively well-regarded 1981-82 drama "Nurse."
In the Becker episode, "Margaret Sings the Blues," written by Maisha Closson, Margaret starts spending her time in a local bar after meeting an old friend who has become a highly successful handbag designer. This is a notable switch from Margaret's usual role as the tough-minded office manager who presides over the zany excesses of surrounding characters, mainly the crotchety, unfocused physician Becker (Ted Danson), in whose Bronx practice she works, and the ditzy "nurse's aide" Linda (Shawnee Smith). But Margaret is overcome with jealousy after learning of her old friend's success, especially since they had long ago dreamed together that Margaret would become a professional singer and her friend would design her outfits. Margaret's absence is bad news for Becker, who faces a flood of patients seeking flu shots with only the hapless Linda to help. Becker decides Linda should learn to give the shots, and he makes her start practicing on an orange, telling her it isn't hard. She argues that she hasn't been trained and is not allowed to do it, but Becker says she's qualified if he, the physician, says so. Linda remains squeamish, and when Becker later assigns her to vaccinate his girlfriend Chris (Nancy Travis), the two are so beset by fear that Becker himself grabs the syringe and gives the shot, again noting how easy it is. Finally, back at the bar where Margaret has (as Linda remarks) been "nursing" her drinks, Becker uncharacteristically persuades Margaret that she has worth, despite not having fame or fortune. He tells her that she is a "wonderful" and "compassionate" person on whom he, her husband, and hundreds of patients rely. In a shocking development, the episode ends with the not-at-all-amateurish Winston singing a standard in the bar, backed by the same pianist whose poor earlier rendition of Ned Washington and Hoagy Carmichael's classic "The Nearness of You" had heightened her depression.
The relatively normal, common sense-oriented nurse who acts as a social anchor and straight person to the surrounding crazies has become something of a sitcom staple--witness Judy Reyes' Carla Espinosa on NBC's popular Scrubs. And this episode of Becker, in showing the minor chaos that ensues when Margaret abandons that role, underlines that she is doing something that matters. Becker's assertion that he and the patients rely on her is likewise a real, if inadequate, statement of support for nursing.
The problem with this common Hollywood vision is that it presents nurses not as serious professionals who save lives but as level-headed service workers who provide logistical and emotional support--basically handmaidens for the hard-nosed managed care era. The flu vaccine scenarios are a good example. It's true that subcutaneous injections like this are sometimes given by persons who have relatively limited training, though still far more than a few stabs at an orange. In general, giving medications is primarily a nursing task, and doing it safely in most contexts requires a real understanding of anatomy, physiology and pharmacology, as well as practical experience. In this episode, a physician character repeatedly argues that giving the vaccinations is easy, with no real rebuttal except from an inept and skittish "nurse's aide." This suggests that any person with normal intelligence and strength could do it. Because the task is so closely associated with Margaret, this is no compliment to her skills, and many viewers may also assume that nurses, who administer medications in far more complex contexts, likewise have limited training and skills. Actually, showing what happens without Margaret could also be seen as a microcosmic view of the current nursing shortage, right down to the unsuccessful response of management to try to fill the gap with unlicensed personnel. But few viewers are likely to see that. They will see that Margaret matters because she is a "wonderful" and "compassionate" person who makes Becker's office run.
In other words, when it comes to nurses in Hollywood (with apologies to Washington and Carmichael):
It's not your great skills that excite us,
That thrill and delight us, oh no--
It's just the nearness of you.