The American Nurse
The American Nurse: Photographs and Interviews by Carolyn Jones, published in 2012, chronicles the life and work of 75 nurses from across the country. The goal of the project was to raise the volume of nurses’ collective voice, but Jones found that she also gained a better understanding of America itself by experiencing it through the lens of these incredible caregivers. The nurses featured in this book come from all walks of life and took many different paths to arrive at nursing, but each and every one of them faces the daily task of providing compassionate care to patients.
The other night, it was kind of quiet when a gentleman came in with a gunshot wound; he was a victim of random violence. We did everything we could, but he died, and that is always difficult to witness. It makes you realize that life is fleeting -- and it touches you. As a health-care professional, it keeps you humble. No matter how far our science has advanced, we don't have control over life. We want to save everyone, but we just can't. Not everyone can do emergency room nursing: it takes a dedicated group with a certain sense of humor and balance. Some days you go from tragic to happy in the span of a few moments. You have to find a way to center yourself and truly understand why you are here -- for service.
Nursing wasn't my first career choice. After college, I moved to Seattle, got into music, and started a company called Angry Boy Productions. For ten years, I was a producer and a DJ. When I leave here at night, I know I've done some good work and I've helped somebody. At the same time, I leave here wondering if I've made the right choice -- giving up something I loved for something I also love, but often sometimes hate. I definitely have ambivalent feelings, but overall I feel very positive about my job. I keep my head above the water, and I feel like I'm adding some good in the world.
When I talk to my patients about end of life, I talk in terms of “energy dollars.” Every day that you wake up with a terminal, progressive illness, your disease allots you a certain amount of energy dollars. You don’t have control over how many dollars you get, just how you’ll spend them.
Kids are always the toughest flights. A few years back we had this kid who was on a snowmobile in a rural field. He didn't see a barbed wire fence and ran right into it. He had a very severe laceration on his neck and was in pretty rough shape. We were able to secure his airway, and the outcome was positive. It's flights like that that make feel you can provide a life-changing service for the patient and their family, but it can be tough.
It's a very treacherous drive to get to our clients. Sometimes we can get a car up but not an ambulance. Sometimes we have to rappel them down the cliffs to get them out. Around here generations of people live together under one roof. You get into a home, and there are the grandparents, their children, and the grandchildren all living together. I get to help people in their own homes, in their environments, where they feel comfortable and where no one else is able to get to them. I have found that once you get a taste for helping people, it's kind of addictive. You want to empower yourself to be more and more helpful.
I always try to practice being fully present on the job. When someone comes in from a traffic accident, for example, I take two minutes to calm myself so that I can make it be all about the patient. I always want to be positive and dignified. We learn in nursing school not to be judgmental and to focus on the whole person, not just the part that is hurt. To be honest, some of my frustrations about the job are because I don't think our policy makers from business and financial backgrounds truly understand what it takes to be on the front line. It's not just about walking into the room and giving medication. It takes time, and each case is different.
I do a lot of end-of-life work, and I really love it. I feel like the neat parts of life are when you bring babies into the world and when you usher people into eternity. We do some great things with the families. We help them understand that the most important thing at this point is making the patient feel comfortable and secure, and helping them to see that they are surrounded by people who know and love them. One of our residents had been a long-term employee, and she loved music. So when she was dying, we called together the staff and we all sang to her. Now it has become tradition that when our residents are dying, we sing to them. It gives the staff something to do to help, and the families really appreciate it in those last days or hours.
I was pushed to be a nurse because I wanted to help remove the barriers to care that I had faced myself. I work with healthcare professionals on how to provide affirmative and informed LGBT health care and how to ask sensitive questions and not make assumptions about a person's gender, which you can't always tell by appearance. The lack of informed care and sensitive language prevents access to routine care and screening. There are very few health centers and hospitals in the country that have supportive and sensitive health services for LGBT people, especially transgender.
At Walter Reed, I helped the returning veterans negotiate the health-care system. It is like a big, confusing puzzle when you first come back from a war zone with a new injury or disability. As a case manager, you get to help people plug into all the different services that are available and return to some semblance of normal. In the end my experiences in active duty inspired me more than traumatized me. They made me realize how blessed I was just to wake up each morning with all my limbs, without needing painkillers, and without having experienced nightmares all night. I also realized that if I can help one of these guys, I can continue to do this work.
As a lesbian who is okay with who I am, I want to help young people who are gay, lesbian, transgender, or bisexual. Hopefully, I can be a safe person, without a lot of prejudices, for them to talk to and to help them trust the systems that may have hurt them because they are "different." If I can help them figure out how to get through it, they'll develop tools to talk to other people. That's what I feel the magic of nursing is all about -- giving space for patients to be able to talk about whats ailing them at the moment, and being a tool to help them feel a little bit better. It's a privilege for me to be able to go into the community and offer these services.
When I started teaching in 1990, I used traditional techniques -- standing in front of a classroom with an overhead projector. Now, twenty years later, I teach 100 percent online. Geography has become irrelevant, and the outreach into remote areas has really given me new perspectives. In many ways, as I teach students all across the world, I become the student and learn something new every day.
I think the intimacy is what drew me to hospice. I often say that I get nourishment from working with people who are dying and their families, because it is so honest and intimate -- what I call “real real". It is a privilege to be there for someone at the end of life.