The Life and Times of Florence Knitingale

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Becoming Ms. Knitingale (Part 2)

An inward journey, in which not one thing is as clear and simple as I would wish it to be

When I apply to nursing school, I will have to write an essay AND sit for an interview. Both of these will require that I answer the question: why do I want to be a nurse? I’m told that the worst possible answer—the one that will guarantee the filing of my application in the cylindrical file with astounding haste—is “because I want to help people”. It’s sort of like the medical version of the beauty contestant who tosses her hair and says “Because I want to help create world peace”. I’ll leave for another time my feelings about a world in which an honest desire to help has become something unbelievable. For now, let’s just say that thinking about the answer has given me something of a chronic headache. Truth is, I DON’T want to be a nurse.

Yep, you heard right. I don’t want to be a nurse. I have to be. In many ways, I already am one in a deep and completely unassailable place that I can’t reach, change, or even reason with. Honestly, there have been many times in which I have wanted desperately to not be a nurse, and I have argued that little internal gargoyle until I was exhausted, to no avail. Like today—when I woke up thinking about the prerequisites and the huge competition, and the fact that I have to get A’s in all of my classes to compete or I may as well trashcan the application myself. And how they just told me that the grading scale for nursing students has changed. For my grade to be a 4.0, I must get a grade of 97% or higher in each of my classes. 94% to 97% is an A- which is only a 3.8, and then it’s B territory all the way. I must be crazy. Who would take this on, this unrelenting invitation to perfectionism which, by the way, I already dance with on a regular basis, always to my detriment? I want to want something different. To invent ice cream flavors. To design ski wear. To clip poodles, for heaven’s sake. Anything. But it’s not up to me at all. I’ve been hooked for too many years.

The first time I knew I was hooked was when I volunteered in a hospital at age 14. I was a candy striper (if you’re old enough to remember what that is, welcome to my middle-aged world) and the nurses really had more trouble finding things for me to do than anything. I hated that then, I hate it now. I want to be useful. But I plugged along until one night the nurse asked me to pop in and talk to this one older, female patient. She didn’t say why and she was so busy, I didn’t ask her. I just went in. I don’t remember what we talked about, really. Probably cats and weather and tv shows. I remember what she looked like, though. She had dark hair that she dyed, soft, perpetually moving hands, a blue nightgown, and what I still think of as “aching eyes”. She looked wounded. But we talked for going on an hour about all kinds of nothing. She smiled at me when I left, and I really didn’t think much more about it. I didn’t find out until later that she had been diagnosed that very day with breast cancer and had refused to speak, eat, drink or even acknowledge anyone from then on--until I went in. And there it was. I had touched another person in some way, and I was hooked. It might as well have been crack.

Nursing had me, and it knew it. I’ve been a medical receptionist, a medical phone person, a CNA in a nursing home, a medical assistant. I’ve been peed on, vomited on, and worse. I had my left nipple twisted viciously by a patient suffering from dementia (yes, I had a shirt on—but she managed to get me anyway), I’ve been yelled at and called names by people who were hurting and afraid and found me to be the safest target. I’ve held people’s hands while they cried and I’ve told people they had diabetes or abnormal paps or mammograms and tried to help hold their fear and their pain for just a few moments so they could breathe before they had to carry it all by themselves. And nursing still has me. Every time I think I might get away—why would ANYONE put themselves through a competition of 500 people for 50 spots?—I think of all those people whom I’ve touched and who have touched me. The lady in the nursing home who was so utterly prim and proper all the time but invariably called the strutting, arrogant physical therapist an “asshole”. To his face. And how I cried when she died one morning, totally unexpectedly and it was the first and only time I ever saw her afraid. The drug addict who cried on my shoulder about how ashamed she was and how I held her and soothed her like a child and she kept using anyway and there was not one thing I could do. The depressive who called in such a dreadful state that the best I could do was make her promise she would not kill herself for at least 24 hours, and when she came in I was the only one she would allow to touch her. (She didn’t die, by the way, and actually got much better, albeit slowly.) The young man who came in for HIV testing every three months, but refused to practice safe sex because he figured HIV was inevitable. (I cried about him, too.) The little girl with a chronic disease who clutched a stuffed animal I gave her and took care of it all through the night that she had to be in the hospital, even getting the nurses to bring her towels so she could make a bed for it.

I don’t want to want to be a nurse. I AM a nurse. It has me. How in the world am I going to put all this in a neat, concise answer? I want to be a nurse because…..

….well, because I can’t not be. There it is. Simple as that. Achingly, astoundingly complex as that.


  • At 9:56 PM, Blogger Kit Is Knitting said…

    I feel very much the same way. I don't always want to be a nurse the same way I don't always want to be a woman or a daughter, but that doesn't change the fact that it's inherent. It is what I am, inside, even if I haven't gotten that piece of paper that says I can practice officially for decent-ish wages yet.

    However, you've had much more experience and I think that being a nurse can either kill your soul or bring you enlightenment, depending on how you treat your experiences.

    Though I don't think I could find a single positive thing about having my left nipple twisted. Gah.

  • At 10:02 PM, Anonymous Jill said…

    That was incredibly moving.

  • At 5:07 AM, Anonymous Marianne said…

    Hello?...excuse me...Nurse Knitingale? I'm so glad I found you, you see........ Yes, you really are there and I'm thinking you are so much closer to knowing what you will be saying...and'll know to be straight forward and honest and how to impress upon them that you are indeed a nurse, you just need to go through the paces....
    I, for one, am looking forward to seeing it all happen. You are amazing.

  • At 10:16 AM, Blogger CarryFairie said…

    Now, just remember these things when you are neck deep in homework, when you are in between quarters and wondering what you are doing with your life, and any time you shake at the thought of "not making it in"...'cause, sweetie, you're gonna' do it...'k???

  • At 12:02 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    One of the bonuses of knowing you for as long as I have is an abiding faith in your continued ability to succeed.


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