The Structure of Nursing School in an Otherwise Chaotic Life

from Learning to Heal: Reflections on Nursing School in Poetry and Prose
ed. by Jeanne Bryner and Cortney Davis
The Kent State University Press

And in my mind
I still need a place to go,
All my changes were there.
―Neil Young

I didn’t always want to be a nurse, but I always wanted to be someone important, to make an impact on the world somehow and to get out of the silly town where I was raised. My only childhood brush with nursing came when I wanted to play combat with my brother and his friends in our back yard. My brother didn’t want me around, but one of the guys suggested I could be the nurse. I was grateful to have any role with the boys because their games always seemed more adventurous, more fun.

Home life was a bit chaotic as my widowed mother tried to deal with four children, the two eldest rebellious and wild. There was a tendency for things to fall apart: the furnace, bedroom windows, and leaky eaves. We didn’t have curfews, but almost always had a meal at 5 p.m. Lawn care and laundry were managed, but with a lot of anxiety and coaxing. Money was scarce and worried over. I couldn’t wait for my real life to begin.

In 1971, I was a co-ed at the University of Wisconsin in Madison just as the protests against the Viet Nam War were becoming more radical. I’d read about how professors and students held “teach ins” to educate and discuss objections to an escalating situation. Only a year before, the army-math research building on campus had been bombed.
The week before classes began, I switched my major from English to Nursing for practical reasons. I knew I’d be paying for college, and at that time there were few teaching jobs available. What would I do with a degree in English? Nursing would be a safer bet for job security. Besides, I told myself, I could always read literature on my own, but I doubted I’d pick up a book on chemistry or anatomy just for fun.

My Midwestern sensibility prepared me for the rigors of school at the University. I’d been a diligent high school student, an officer on student council, and I was focused. I expected to study hard and wasn’t surprised when I needed to spend two to four hours a night on my schoolwork. I took a work-study position at the library and seemed to manage my time well.
What did surprise me was that there were nursing students more serious than I. Some of my classmates arrived early to class to secure front row seats so they could tape the lectures. Although I wasn’t among the most ambitious, I did pride myself on taking excellent notes. The style of education, lecture and reading, memorization and visualization of the material, worked well for me. It wasn’t until years later that I realized I’d been an academic nerd. My children pointed it out.

Meanwhile, a new world opened to me. The elective classes were enriching and exciting. A philosophy professor asked questions I’d never even considered. A fellow student in an English class knew more about Shakespeare than I did. There were lots of smart men around and plenty of opportunities for fun. I met a redheaded Jewish man from Argentina in ballroom dance, which served as my physical education requirement. I hadn’t known that there were Jewish people with red hair or in Argentina.

One day there was excitement in the air. The dorm was emptying. From my room on the sixth floor I saw a crowd of people walking towards State Street a block away. I’d heard about previous protests against the use of napalm, a chemical weapon used in the Viet Nam war. It seemed important to add my presence and I was curious. I joined the crowd of protesters. We walked shoulder to shoulder. I was jostled and couldn’t see the police but knew they were there from the shouts of the crowd. When I heard the words “tear gas” I headed back to the dorm. But lots of other people sought shelter there in the lobby and the police threw a canister of tear gas into the crowd. I headed back to the safety of the sixth floor. It was all so wonderfully dramatic, both in the actual event and the newspaper headlines the next day. I felt my place in history.

I also found time for socializing. One young woman in class didn’t look like the rest of the nursing students but more like Joan Baez. She had long dark hair and wore blue jeans and muslin blouses, avoided the front row seats and sometimes walked in late. I needed to meet her and so approached her one-day after class. As we walked in front of the old nursing building we spotted a tangle of beads on the sidewalk. She picked it up and said, “Someone lost a necklace.” I was confused, because it was clearly a rosary, and I told her so. “What’s a rosary?” she asked, and thus began a long friendship marked by curiosities and a sincere appreciation for what we didn’t know about one another, about worlds we’d never known existed. She introduced me to my first fresh tomato and mushroom, my first bagel and cream cheese. And to jazz.

My high school boyfriend was a year ahead of me at the university, on a football scholarship. I guess that was nice the first couple of weeks, but my roommate introduced me to another guy with whom I became fascinated. He was a chain smoker, tall and handsome and not enrolled in school. I liked him even after learning he’d spent a year in prison for armed robbery. Poor man was misunderstood. He was reckless with booze and money, exciting and forbidden, a gambler and risk taker, attracted to the stability and common sense he saw in me. I learned to smoke pot and drink tequila, to start the weekend on Thursday night when the bars offered cheap pitchers of beer.

Looking back I realize that it never occurred to me that my partying behavior could have any ramifications on nursing school. Everyone was smoking pot and it wasn’t unusual to find it at afternoon block parties. I’d moved from the dorm to a house near Mifflin Street, famous for it’s summer bash where the mayor, a twenty-seven year old, could be seen. As far as the drinking, well, that was a pastime throughout the state, not just on campus. As I write this a new list of the top “drunkest cities in America” reveals that twelve of the top twenty cites cited are located in Wisconsin, the first four within an hour of my home. Here in Fond du Lac we’re merely number seven.

How did I keep my act together in college? Nursing school kept me grounded as changes occurred everywhere around me. I needed to focus on writing papers and continue to put in long hours of study. Academic life ultimately took priority over partying. There was a built-in structure. There was always food in the cafeteria. Our meal cards guaranteed three squares a day. Class schedules and syllabi ruled my life. I managed to keep up with class work and grew interested in the sciences. How very cool to paint bacteria on an Apgar plate, to see the human body dissected and preserved. We nursing students were allowed to view cadavers after the medical students dissected them. Weirdly, I had a craving for chicken after viewing muscle groups but kept this to myself. The academic part of school also held my attention. I enjoyed the scientific principle and the idea of predicting outcomes. Like chaos theory, so much motion opened up many possibilities. When finished with school I could work in pediatrics, surgery, a clinic or public health.

And the professors: middle aged women who wore reasonable shoes and tidy hairstyles. I remember hitchhiking to the VA hospital in fake leather (plastic) boots with wedged heels during a snowstorm, working in wet socks all day. But the instructors seemed unphased by crisis, by blood spurting from various orifices of demented old men at the VA hospital who grabbed at student nurses. The instructors calmly demonstrated injections, blood draws, dressing changes and emphasized the concepts of critical thinking and evaluation. Healing didn’t just happen: it could be predicted and measured.

I wanted to be one of those women with clean, short fingernails and a grasp on practical knowledge. When one of my instructors announced her engagement and upcoming marriage (at what age? Maybe thirty-five!) another light turned on in my brain. One could marry after establishing a career. That fact was comforting to me, and later I mimicked her, marrying at 32.

My job was to figure out how to be both, a capable professional with heavy responsibility and a person committed to questioning authority, to throwing caution to the wind at times, be open to the beauty of the unpredictable. I learned to live with a foot in two worlds as both a serious academic and a playful student. I kept a journal to help me reconcile the flat facts of life and death as well as personal challenges. Was I really in love again, or was last weekend’s flirtation just another fascination? Both ideas seemed equally important to me at that time, but I learned how to value and handle both. As it turned out, I graduated with honors from the University.

I like to think I still do that. I feel devoted to science as a way of explaining some mysteries and that keeps me grounded in an otherwise crazy world. I believe in climate change and the need to reproduce results. What science doesn’t or can’t explain I make up through writing poetry and call that another way of knowing. I write to play around with the storytelling of science. While working in the University Hospital just after graduation I noted the tremendous strain on patients and families dealing with serious diagnoses and treatment. I worked on included gynecology oncology and I had to imagine myself as competent and professional even when I didn’t feel that way. Some days I felt like an imposter, taking the bus to work in my uniform and white shoes after a night of blue jeans and folly. When I wrote a poem from the patient’s perspective, it helped me feel like I knew what I was doing, after all.

Though I no longer work as a nurse I recall that work with a sense of pride. It’s real and visceral and empowering. Nursing is deeply spiritual in its service to others, and I feel lucky to have done it, to have discovered satisfying adult behavior even as I flirted with the foolishness of things. The lessons I learned in nursing school still help me sort fact from fiction as I deal with the serious challenges of multiple sclerosis and the daily business of living in a complex world. Reframing my perspective through writing is key.