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Brittani McCulloughApril 8, 2010 -- Today the Los Angeles Times published an article by Baxter Holmes about UCLA nursing student Brittani McCullough, who is one of the nation's leading college gymnasts and competes on one of its leading teams. Surprisingly, the piece stresses the competitiveness and intensity of the UCLA nursing program, explaining how hard it is for McCullough to pursue her studies at the same time as she competes at the highest athletic level. Of course, there are also some references to the kindness and comfort elements of nursing. The piece does not give much detail about what makes the nursing program so hard, apart from it involving "science" courses and taking a lot of time. And near the end, the article reports that McCullough may some day want to be "a pediatrician or a neonatal intensive care unit nurse." Perhaps this is accurate, though nurses are about 100 times more likely to pursue graduate education in nursing than medicine, and the stereotype that able nurses achieve by pursuing medicine remains common. Still, the piece presents nursing as a career for ambitious people who want to play a key role in helping others in times of need. We thank Baxter Holmes and the Los Angeles Times.

The headline and sub-head together present the piece's two main themes pretty well:  "UCLA gymnast Brittani McCullough chooses tough career course; A kind nurse who helped her after a car accident inspires her to become one herself." The article describes a 2006 car accident in which McCullough, then a college freshman, fell asleep at the wheel, totaled her car, and was hurt badly enough to go to the hospital.

Then she met a person who changed her life -- her nurse. McCullough never caught the woman's name, recalling only that she was short, wore glasses and was extremely kind and attentive, always checking to see whether her young patient needed pain medication, food or anything else. The nurse left so strong an impression that McCullough chose a career course unlike [any] other athlete at UCLA, one that required a grueling academic schedule on top of an already-demanding athletic agenda.

The "never caught the woman's name" part is revealing; how likely is it that someone would say that about a physician who played a key role in her care? Welcome to nursing, land of self-negation.

The piece explains that of the 650 intercollegiate athletes at UCLA, "McCullough is the only one in the 624-student nursing program, which last year received more than 1,200 applications for 50 open spots." (The piece does not explain how there could be only 50 slots per class in a 4-year program of 624, unless it is including graduate students.) The article goes on to note that the nursing bachelor's program "is considered the most competitive degree program on campus," according to a UCLA spokeswoman. McCullough--no slouch as a former biology major--was not admitted to the nursing program the first time she applied, but she persisted and got in. Her coach Valorie Kondos Field and an academic counselor actually tried to dissuade her from pursuing the nursing major, not because they considered it a backwards loser thing that smart modern women must avoid (the dominant Hollywood view), but because "the time commitment was too great." But McCullough was undeterred.

The piece conveys some of what McCullough's day-to-day life is like, noting bluntly that the "path she chose is a lonely one." 

Several of her science courses conflicted with practice, so she began seeing her teammates less and less. This quarter she can practice with them only once a week because of 12-hour clinics she is required to attend twice a week at Torrance Memorial Medical Center. Usually she trains only with her coaches, so she sometimes leaves behind motivational notes for her teammates. "She makes sure the team knows she's still there with us," Li says. McCullough's schedule leaves little time for a social life, and she squeezes in 10-minute naps between classes. "She seems to handle it very well by being extremely organized and very dedicated," says Barbara Demman, a faculty member of UCLA's nursing school.

nap10-minute naps? It sounds like McCullough is already participating in an Olympic event just coping with her schedule. The piece actually describes gymnastics as her "stress release," because she loves doing it. (And really, isn't that what we all think when watching elite gymnastics competition:  What a stress release that must be?) It might have been helpful if the piece had done more to explain just what McCullough is learning in these science classes and clinical sessions, so that people understand it's not just about spending 12 hours being "kind and attentive," but also about biology, chemistry, physiology, psychology, mathematics, and so on.

The article says that McCullough sometimes

brings her stethoscope into the gym to practice on her teammates, but when they're injured, the work turns serious and she listens intently and speaks with authority. "I've had teammates that have had a lot of injuries …and I'm able to talk to them about it because I've overcome it all too," she says.

Of course, this makes it sound like she's giving them the benefit of her gymnastics experience, rather than her nursing expertise.

Near the end, the piece offers a curious paragraph about McCullough's future plans.

Eventually, McCullough wants to work with children, maybe as a pediatrician or a neonatal intensive care unit nurse. She wants to give comfort, just as she received from the nurse who put her on her path.

The word "comfort" isn't very helpful to nursing, because it underlines the sense that the work is largely unskilled; pillows give comfort too. But the more interesting element in the paragraph is the idea that McCullough might become either a pediatrician or a NICU nurse. Of course, she may have really told the reporter this, rather than telling him that she might become a pediatric nurse practitioner. And people can aspire to whatever career they choose. But the idea that nurses really achieve by pursuing a medical career remains rampant--certainly in Hollywood, where it has played a role in recent plotlines of ABC's Private Practice and A&E's The Glades. However, the reality is that nursing is a distinct and autonomous profession, not a subset of medicine, and nurses are about 100 times more likely to pursue graduate education in nursing.

Despite some problems, the report is a generally helpful portrait of nursing as a selective profession for high-achieving young people looking to do something useful with their lives.

See the article "UCLA gymnast Brittani McCullough chooses tough career course: A kind nurse who helped her after a car accident inspires her to become one herself," by Baxter Holmes that appeared on the Los Angeles Times website on April 8, 2010.

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