"Why would you pursue that?"
July 10, 2011 -- Recent press items in newspapers large and small have addressed the prospect of nursing careers, shedding light on how far society has -- and has not -- come in its perceptions about the profession. On March 28, the Daily Reflector (Greenville, NC) ran "Scouts zero in on nursing," a good report by Jennifer Swartz about Scout Out Nursing, an interactive program to introduce Scouts to careers in nursing. The program is led by Gina Woody at East Carolina University's College of Nursing in collaboration with the Beta Nu chapter of the nursing honor society Sigma Theta Tau. (See a video of the program narrated by Woody.) And today, the Sydney Morning Herald published Daniel Lane's "Star nurses new ambitions," which describes Australian Olympic swimmer Alice Mills's training to be a nurse, a career she plans to resume pursuing after the 2012 London Olympics. These two pieces look at nursing careers from different angles, but both touch on the unfortunate gap between the public's understanding of the work, particularly as embodied in popular television shows, and the reality of nursing, which is a demanding profession that requires years of university training but enables practitioners to save and improve lives a wide variety of exciting settings. The Herald report is especially powerful in showing how far "television soap operas" are from conveying the reality of the demanding nursing profession, but the Reflector item has good elements as well, notably 11-year-old Scout Bobbie Kochlin's observation that she is drawn to trauma nursing because it "saves people's lives." We thank all those responsible for these pieces.
"It's not as though you just walk in off the street and do the job"
The Sydney Morning Herald report's headline -- "Star nurses new ambitions" -- is not great because the use of "nurse" as a verb to describe any kind of tending, skilled or unskilled, tends to undermine the sense of nursing as a distinct, skilled profession. But the piece is full of helpful descriptions of Alice Mills's "new ambitions," starting with the statement that nursing "will require all the discipline and stamina she has developed as an elite swimmer." The article says that Mills has spent the last four years studying nursing (part-time because of her swimming), a very different pursuit from top athletes who try to move into media careers. Mills won two gold medals in the 2004 Athens Olympics. She raises the issue of people's reactions to her nursing.
"The reaction when I tell people I'm studying nursing is 50:50," Mills said from her home on the Gold Coast. "Half of them say 'Wow what a great direction' and they hope it all goes well. Others, however, just blatantly say 'Why would you pursue that?'"
The 25-year-old athlete says it's not hard to answer the question, explaining that "it's rewarding to help people and to try to help make them better" and that "there's something quite nice about seeing someone leave the hospital and knowing you've made a difference to them and their family." That's a bit vague, but the piece includes helpful detail.
After having completed three months' worth of practical experience, Mills described the reality of nursing as very different to how it is portrayed in television soap operas. "I think a lot of people don't realise how hard the work is," she said. "Nursing is very demanding; you need to study [full time] at university for three years so it's not as though you just walk in off the street and do the job. It's a very professional career. It's not like you see on television either, it's so exaggerated. It's not as super exciting as television makes it seem, but it's not as sad either. It's more rewarding than anything else."
The piece concludes with Mills noting that she was always the kid who "wanted to help everybody else." One of the photos accompanying the article shows a smiling Mills, lying on the grass apparently near her home, leaning on some nursing textbooks, including the very thick, imposing Lewis's Medical-Surgical Nursing. This is an obvious but effective way to underline Mills's point that the profession requires intense university training.
This short piece is mainly about a celebrity's interesting career shift, but it's helpful to nursing in several key ways. First, the connection the piece makes between Mills's new nursing career and her swimming achievements, which are due in part to intense work and discipline over a period of years, belies the impression that anyone can be a nurse. Mills goes further, underlining how "demanding" the training is and that the career is "very professional." She explicitly says that many people don't realize how hard the work is and that you can't just "walk in off the street and do the job." Clearly, there would be no reason for her to say that if it was not a view that many people hold. The photo with the huge medical-surgical nursing book is a great way to emphasize Mills's point; there are no 1,000-page university texts in handholding and pillow-fluffing. We admire her candor about people's reactions. Not every elite athlete would have recounted that half of those she tells about her nursing say something like "Why would you pursue that?" And Mills, who must be pretty familiar with television by now, directly links that dominant medium to the damaging impression that nursing is unskilled work. The piece could have included more specifics about what nurses actually do for patients, but all in all, it packs a fairly amazing number of helpful elements in what is, after all, a light item about a star athlete.
Patches and badges (See the video!)
The short Daily Reflector item also includes helpful nuggets about nursing careers. The article reports that about 120 Scouts attended the recent "interactive career event" on nursing at East Carolina University (ECU). "Scout Out Nursing," which is held every two years, is sponsored by ECU's "Beta Nu chapter of Sigma Theta Tau, the international honor society for nursing and the school's College of Nursing." The event tries to address "the nation's predicted nursing shortage" (predicted?) while offering the Scouts the chance "to earn patches and badges."
Games, crafts, first aid primers and a chance to learn what the heart and lungs sound like were just a small part of the offerings as Scouts rotated every 20 minutes through rooms featuring surgery, military field operations, midwifery, history and other themes.
The piece includes short quotes from Gina Woody, an assistant clinical professor at ECU's College of Nursing (who we sought out to be a presenter at the Truth's own April 2011 conference in New Orleans after this piece appeared). (See the video she put together of the program for her Pecha-Kecha presentation.) Woody stresses that the Scouts event aims to "encourage the young people" to consider nursing and show them "the many different avenues nurses can take." Local Sigma Theta Tau chapter president Elaine Scott says that kids "need a realistic understanding of what nursing is," adding that the sponsors want to increase diversity in the profession and that (in the report's words) "television often offers unrealistic portrayals of medicine." The report goes on to quote "Eagle Scout and first-semester undergraduate nursing student John Berger, one of about 75 faculty and student volunteers," who says that the "kids seem to really enjoy it [and t]hey learn a lot." The piece closes with quotes from a couple of these kids. Marisa Crisp, 10, found it "really cool to learn the history of the nurses." And Bobbie Kochlin, 11, "said she was inspired by obstetrics, for the chance it offered to bring life into the world, but was equally drawn to trauma. 'It saves people's lives,' she said."
The report is short, but it includes some good points about nursing. Among them are the need for diversity (underlined by the participation of Berger), the many different potential paths new nurses can take, and the flawed portrayals of nursing on television. The event itself seems to be an inspired combination of interactive activities aimed at engaging kids. The choice of the Scouts as a target group also seems like a great idea, since they are focused on encouraging a spirit of public service. And Bobbie Kochlin's explanation for her interest in trauma, that it "saves people's lives," conveys exactly what we have long tried to help the public see about nurses.