I recently retired after 45 years in the nursing profession. All I can say is "What a ride!" If I had to do it all over again, I would do exactly the same thing.
I can't remember ever wanting to be anything else. As an adolescent I read all the Cherry Ames nurse books and envisioned myself doing all different kinds of nursing.
I went to nursing school at Braddock General Hospital and met other wide-eyed young ladies like myself, all of us wondering what we had gotten ourselves into.
We were there for 36 months, with one week off in August and another at Christmas. I don't know why I remember the exact cost, other than I remember my father wondering how we were going to afford it -- $579 for three years of room and board, books and uniforms.
It was like a three-year sleepover. Thirty of us lived together, but four of us became inseparable, and we are still friends to this day. We ate together, studied together, pooled our money to buy snacks and cigarettes and dyed each other's hair some outrageous, unanticipated colors.
We practiced on each other, applying bandages and giving injections of saline to simulate giving shots. And we hid from those dear nuns, who were looking for students who needed practice in giving enemas (which we luckily did not have to practice on one another).
We wrote to our boyfriends, one each in the Navy, Army, Air Force and Marines. Those boyfriends became our husbands a few years later. We were a sheltered lot. It was the late '60s, and while others were burning their bras and heading to Woodstock, we were not even permitted to wear slacks or jeans when entering or leaving the building.
In our third year, we affiliated at Children's Hospital in Oakland. It was that experience that changed my life.
I had an infant patient who was dying of kidney cancer. His parents were young and would take a bus to get to the hospital, alternating shifts so they could hold and rock their baby, as this gave them comfort. They were around my own age, and I marveled at the level of maturity that life forced them to accept.
One day I overheard them lamenting that they would have a two-hour window when neither of them would be able to visit the hospital. I offered to come back that evening and rock their baby until they got there. The baby died in my arms.
The next day, a dozen yellow roses arrived from the young parents, appreciative that their baby did not die alone. I could not put a label on my feelings -- I was sad, numb, grateful that I was there for that baby and her parents, and wondering how they could survive with such grief.
And then it dawned on me: So this is what nursing is! It is the opportunity to be a part of the lives of strangers at their most personal and vulnerable moments. It is a short period of time to relieve pain, to comfort, to assuage fears, to honor dignity, to teach. It is just being there! It is the "art" of nursing.
Some years later, when AIDS was still new (and a mystery) to the medical community, I was working in the recovery room. I asked to care for the young patient who had that diagnosis, whom we knew was not going to survive. I held his hand and looked down at his thin face. I saw his eyelashes lying gently on his face, and it reminded me of the times that I rocked my own sons. It was the only time that I went to a funeral home to visit one of my patients, but I had to tell the patient's mother that he did not die alone.
These are dramatic cases, and certainly that was not my day-to-day experience. But it's the little things in life that make your day, and the days add up to make a career. I went back to school to earn a couple of degrees and enjoyed being part of administration for the last 10 years, but I never forgot my bedside nursing experience.
Nursing is not for the faint of heart. It requires rigorous and ongoing study and a fascination with the human body. It's reflective of society in having become more technical over the years. It's a profession that may draw people who are looking for a "job" with decent income, rather than a calling.
But there are still plenty of wonderful nurses who have that love for their patients and are practicing the "art" of nursing.
Neonei Rees of South Fayette, recently retired from St. Clair Hospital, can be reached at email@example.com. The PG Portfolio welcomes "On the Job" submissions about people's interesting work experiences, in addition to other reader essays. Send your writing to firstname.lastname@example.org; or by mail to Portfolio, Post-Gazette, 34 Blvd. of the Allies, Pittsburgh PA 15222. Portfolio editor Gary Rotstein may be reached at 412-263-1255.