Book Review twofer: The Nurses & The Shift
Those who know me will probably be surprised that I would read a book about nursing and hospitals… never mind reading and enjoying, two in a row. For those who don’t know me: I’m squeamish about all things medical, to the point where even Scrubs can be too intense. Despite timidity that verges on phobia, I am fascinated by health and medicine, and its practitioners. And so, I read two books about nursing, and, for the most part, enjoyed them both.
The Nurses: A Year of Secrets, Drama and Miracles with the Heroes of the Hospital
Advance copy from publisher)
Given the fact that Alexandra Robbins was also the author of Pledged, I was intrigued enough by this book to set aside my hospital squeamishness and give this one a try.
Four individual nurses in different hospitals became central characters, with anecdotes building their stories over the course of the book. Each chapter developed around a central theme, like the hazing nurses go through in training, power plays between doctors and nurses, grueling hours and patient workloads, bullying and cliques in hospitals, having to subdue violent patients, dealing with burnout. Inanely, I noticed that male nurses are referred to in hospitals as “nurses,” which I remember not believing when I saw the word used on Scrubs. (I honestly thought it was some kind of spoof or joke!) Stories of individual nurses developed over the course of the book, in vignettes that contrasted an understaffed city hospital with limited resources, with a suburban hospital with a teaching hospital, revisiting the focal nurses in sequence. Each nurse works in an emergency room, but the location and character of the hospital plays a significant role in the kinds of patients they see, the kinds of treatments they give.
Even after reading this, I can’t imagine the strength of purpose and character it would take to pursue a career in nursing, and to come back, day after day. Nurses delivered exactly the kind of smart blend of individual perspective and larger social context I find the most satisfying. After setting up individual narratives to fit each chapter’s theme, Robbins pulled back to take a broader look at nurses’ professional life and culture, adding anecdotes from a number of interviews. I enjoyed the bigger contextual passages the most, where Robbins shifted from description to analysis. Her insights about hazing and the hierarchical power structures of the hospital made me sit up and take notice, especially. Treating the culture of nursing and medicine with an anthropological lens and bringing it out to more social analysis made this an immensely satisfying read (and helped me catch my breath from the more squeamish moments, of which there were a few.)
Which brings us to the next book in my inadvertent binge-read of nursing books.
The Shift : One Nurse, Twelve Hours, Four Patients’ Lives
Algonquin Books (Forthcoming, September 2015)
(e-galley from Edelweiss)
Busy balancing the needs of four patients against the procedures and workflows of a modern hospital, Theresa guides the reader through her typical, busy day.
Her voice is conversational, and compassionate towards her patients, their families, and her medical colleagues. If every day is like this, it’s a grueling workload that I can’t even imagine being able to handle. I can’t imagine four, never mind twelve hours, of balancing the needs of four critically ill, sometimes scared, patients who need medical procedures, comfort, and to have their medicines tracked, managed and charted… Reading the details of Brown’s single day seems exhausting. Both the mechanics of balancing and tracking the care and procedures of patients, and then having to work through charting, while also maintaining relationships with staff in the hospital… It’s easy to see how nurses burn out, reading this.
She describes the medical procedures she works on, like giving injections of chemotherapy, in easy-to-visualize detail. (I got squeamish in several spots, because, of course, the treatment of cancer is full of procedures with needles and IVs, which might be the most cringe-inducing aspect of medicine, in my squeamish and cringing opinion.) I also appreciated seeing Brown’s view, and thoughts about the computerized charting system for electronic medical records. From her astute, and detailed description, it doesn’t seem user-friendly or easy to navigate… adding yet more stress to the day, I would imagine.
And yet, Brown’s narrative voice stays matter-of-fact, acknowledging her busyness, yes, but staying largely upbeat… the sense of her love for her profession and willingness to work hard to care well and connect to her patients comes through.
The fact that Brown has a background in English literature makes for interesting observations, like drawing on William Blake quotations as she thinks about patients’ lives. I appreciated that, both because I found it artfully done, and because, again, it helped me catch my squeamish breath.
In sum, I found both of them rewarding, well-executed books. I’m fairly certain I’m not the target audience for either of these books. I could see them as fascinating reads for a range of audiences, from someone considering going into nursing, to someone looking for insights and perspectives about the American health care and hospital system, or someone like me, looking for a view into a profession I respect and feel timid about, enhanced by cogently written social analysis. And I can attest that even the most medically squeamish reader can find something to like about both of these.