Nurse Writers Arrive in Wiki-land

English: Manuscript handwritten by Walt Whitma...
English: Manuscript handwritten by Walt Whitman, American poet, for his poem “Broadway, 1861” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As I wrote in a previous blog post “Nurses and Writing: Writers and Nurses” (3-31-11) the term “physician writer” is well-known and accepted by the general public, while the term “nurse writer” is not. Physician writer has had an extensive Wikipedia entry since March 2008.

Thanks to Dr. Thomas Lawrence Long, Associate Professor-in-residence at University of Connecticut School of Nursing, there is now a Wikipedia entry for “nurse writers.” Dr. Long has a PhD in English and a master’s degree in Theology. He teaches writing at a school of nursing and maintains a nurse writing website/blog resource called NursingWriting. Here is his Wikipedia definition of nurse writer:

“Nurse writers are registered nurses (RNs) who write for general audiences in the creative genres of poetry, fiction, and drama, as well as in creative non-fiction. The published work of the nurse writer is analogous to that of the physician writer, which may or may not deal explicitly with health topics but is informed by a professional experience of human vulnerability and acute observation.”

Nice definition, with the possible exception of the RN part. (Can’t an LPN writer be called a nurse writer? Plus, the RN designation is a relatively recent invention and may not translate to all countries). He also includes a list of nurse writers, beginning with 19th century writers, ranked by date of birth. Curiously, he left out Walt Whitman and Mary Seacole, who were both born before Florence Nightingale (who he lists first.) Including a well-known male nurse/writer (Whitman) and a nurse/writer of color (Seacole) would be a good idea. So someone out there who wants to add these, please do. While they’re at it they can add Mary Jane Nealon (Beautiful Unbroken: One Nurse’s Life, Graywolf Press, 2011) to the 21st century list.

Nurse writer Theresa Brown has a recent post (on Hunter College’s Center for Health Media and Policy blog Healthcetera) “Calling all nurse writers,” in which she encourages nurses to write. As Ms. Brown points out, nurses typically spend a lot of time with patients, have many stories to tell, and have a unique perspective on health care provision.

I have had many inquiries lately from nurses seeking advice on how to develop as creative writers. Here is my (very biased) advice:

1. Read. Read widely. Read great/classic literature as well as current writing from authors in a variety of genres. Read/subscribe to literary magazines. (My current list of literary journals includes Creative Nonfiction, The Examined Life, Bellevue Literary Review, and Fourth Genre. These are all top literary journals in my writing genre of literary nonfiction/narrative medicine.)

2. Write. Write something that is creative–for your eyes only– every day. Even if it is for just five minutes in a bathroom stall at work, during a sacred bathroom break, and you have to write on a paper towel–incorporate writing into your life.

3. Find/join a writer’s group/center in your community. In Seattle I recommend Hugo House as an excellent resource for writers at all ‘levels.’

4. Join  NYU‘s Medical Humanities listserv. Even though this is ‘hosted’ by NYU’s medical school, it is interdisciplinary and their website is an excellent resource.

5. If you are an academic or have to do academic writing in your work, find a way to purge that part of your writing brain–or at least find a way to compartmentalize it. Academic writing is formulaic and anti-creative.

6. Find a way to share your writing. This could be in a supportive writing group or class, at open-mic venues in your community, by submitting to a journal, or by posting to a blog.

More than a few good men needed in nursing

Walt Whitman and his male nurse Fritzenger
Image via Wikipedia

“Bearing the bandages, water and sponge, Straight and swift to my wounded I go…” Walt Whitman “The Wound Dresser” The Civil War Poems

Walt Whitman was a nurse. My students, and especially the male students, always seem surprised by this fact. Whitman stumbled into volunteer nursing during the Civil War as he went looking for his brother wounded in the war. It is difficult to find reliable statistics on such things, but it is likely that male nurses involved in the war were not unusual.

We need more men in nursing. They don’t have to be poets as well, but we need more men. Whenever we discuss the need to increase diversity in nursing, it needs to include gender diversity. This fact is addressed in the IOM Future of Nursing Report. They point out that all other health care professions have achieved approximately equal gender parity. Even among the traditionally male dominated physicians: 50% of MD graduates are women.  And looking outside of health care to another (at least more recently) ‘female dominated profession’—teachers in public schools, 25% of the teachers are male.

What’s wrong with us? Current HRSA statistics are that only 7% of our RN workforce is male, and our schools of nursing only admit 13% male students. A quick and highly unscientific analysis of the undergraduate students I have personally taught in the past 12 months (close to 300), are that only 8% are/have been male. The current “Master Plan for Nursing” in Washington State where I reside and teach, completely leaves out gender under discussion of the need to improve diversity within nursing. Apart from all of the societal issues of gender stereotypes related to nursing, I do think that the ‘old girl’s network’ of leaders in nursing education is hindering an improvement in gender equity. I think that many of the nursing leaders have an unacknowledged bias against men in nursing. I have seen this played out and even stated in classroom settings, in meetings, in reports, and ‘in private/behind closed doors.’ What are they afraid of? I don’t think that it is a coincidence that there does seem to be a strong age correlation, and the older cohort of nursing leaders tend to have a stronger anti-male nurse bias. But given the ‘advanced age’ of our nursing educator workforce throughout the US, this translates to a big problem for making nursing education more gender-neutral.

The American Academy of Men in Nursing (aamn.org) takes on these and related issues—and they are open to women members as well as men. Their 2010 winners of the “Best Nursing Schools for Men” include Duke, Louisiana State, and University of Pennsylvania. I plan to check out what they are doing right.