Angels and Tough Guys, Part 1

June 16, 2010
Gerald O'Malley, DO

I could not be the doctor or man that I am without having befriended and been taught by the nurses I’ve known. I write about this now because I’ve accepted a new position in a different ER here in Philadelphia and I’ll be saying goodbye to some nurses that I’ve know for almost 18 years. They are my family, as much as my wife and children and leaving them and this ER that I love is one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.

One of the nurses I work with mentioned the other day that she had broken up with her husband of nine years. He had moved out six months ago and they were planning to divorce. I was stunned. I’ve known this particular woman for almost five years. I’d had many meals and attended picnics and other activities with her and her family. They seemed perfectly compatible and happy. What happened? 

I offered condolences and wondered of her pain. How has this remarkable woman managed to come to work night after night and listen to the whining and complaining of patient after patient without surrendering and breaking down due to her own problems? This woman and her children have had the carpet of their whole world pulled up and nobody would ever have known it had she not mentioned it while casually talking about her weekend plans. How does she do it?

Easy – she is a nurse.

When I was a pre-med student at SUNY Stony Brook I cut my medical teeth as a night shift nurses’ aide on a med-surg floor at the university hospital. I wouldn’t wish that job on my worst enemy.

It is backbreaking, emotionally trying, and at times downright disgusting work. Cleaning urine and feces from the backs and bedsores of bedridden AIDS patients in the middle of the night gets old really fast. I made friends with the nurses (most of the doctors didn’t have the time to talk with a lowly nurses’ aide), and they taught me most of what I know about how a hospital works.

The nursing shortage in the 1980s resulted in hundreds of nurses being allowed into the country from the Philippines, Ireland, Jamaica and other countries. As a medical student in New York City, I became friends with several nurses (again, the doctors frequently had no time for lowly medical students, so we relied on the nurses to teach us hospital survival skills) that had left their families and in some cases children behind, to come here and work to send money back home.

The nurses formed a family and they took pity on the medical students, feeding us, inviting us to their parties, taking care of us and watching out for us. We fell in love with them, dated them, and in some cases married them.

I lost count of the number of times one of them received news from their home country that their husband was fooling around with another woman or was leaving them or their child was sick. Some of them broke their contracts and ran back home or they became alcoholics, but most didn’t. Most of them had too much respect for their profession to disgrace it by bringing their personal problems to the hospital - that hallowed ground where we work toward something bigger than ourselves.

I could not be the doctor or man that I am without having befriended and been taught by the nurses I’ve known. I write about this now because I’ve accepted a new position in a different ER here in Philadelphia and I’ll be saying goodbye to some nurses that I’ve know for almost 18 years. They are my family, as much as my wife and children and leaving them and this ER that I love is one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.

With this post I’ve shared my feelings and respect for nurses but I haven’t mentioned a particular species of nurse - the male kind. Male nurses have a special place in heaven. More about them next week.