How I Came To Nursing

I did not realize how early the premonition, omen, whatever, that nursing would call to me and I would not only accept that call but grab it in a fierce embrace. In fact, it was only a couple of years before my epiphany, when I was working in the harshest environment I had known that one of my guys said something about his sister being a nurse. Even though my own sister was a registered nurse, I replied, “They don’t print enough friggin’ money for me to take up that shit!”

This from a guy who’d spent several years as a child in close companionship with another who was already confined to a wheelchair when I met him. Butch was probably seven years older, and that also set the trend of my hanging with an older crowd. Fortunately, I was smart and funny enough to pull it off through my teen years. But my friend, Butch, had muscular dystrophy. I willingly pushed him around the neighborhood, and he was our umpire and referee for our games, and nobody really argued with his decisions — whether out of pity or self-respect, I don’t know. Who wants to get into it with a crippled kid? How big of an asshole are you ready to be?

We moved across town to buy a house when I was ten. My parents would drop me off for a visit on Sundays sometimes, but Butch began to decline rather quickly until one summer morning three years later, my mom woke me with the news of his passing. I gave my time to my new neighborhood and new friends. After graduating from high school, I enlisted in the Air Force where I learned electronics and a technical way of thinking which served me well later in college and even more as I started doing work related to my general knowledge. I worked in the chemical production and recycling for a few years before moving to hazardous material remediation and disposal. I loved the work because it presented new problems to solve everyday, and I supervised a good bunch of fellows. The work was great and I was good at it.

Unfortunately, some genius on the rarefied level of upper management decided to get cute with some stock over-valuations causing a domino effect that led to the company’s bankruptcy and the upending of my life. I had a bachelor’s degree, but a lot of us got dumped on the market at the same time. Employment became scarce, and I was divorced, had a mortgage, and a kid in college. So, it seemed that I needed to take the first reasonable offer that I could grab onto; one sold as fresh but it had really exceeded the sell-by date; I only came to that realization after it was a bit too late. It was a self-owned company with a vision of success that exceeded its grasp by a long way.

My drive to the job every day was a long one, much of it by interstate. One bright morning, as I was cruising south, the car radio tuned to an NPR station and my mind only partially engaged on either activity, I had a vision. When I call it a vision, I mean it in the classic sense — I saw myself as a nurse. No sound other than the radio accompanied it, but what I had to do was clear to me. I made it to the office and, still a little off-kilter, walked on inside. The owner was seated at his desk just inside from the reception area and he called me in.

“Rob! Look here, I don’t think I pay you this week.” That was nothing really new with these people.

“That’s okay, Charlie, I am quitting at the end of this week.”

His eyes grew big as quarters with this bit of news, “Well, what’cha gonna do?”

“I am going to be a nurse,’’ I replied. With this out in the open, his partner, and father, Ernest chimed in with “I always thought there was something funny about you.”

Not knowing or caring how insulting Ernest meant to be, I shot back with a hearty piss off, which accurately defined our relationship on any given day. Doing some research that night, I downloaded admissions forms for the University of South Carolina (USC) and the University of North Carolina at Charlotte (UNC-C). Those two were the nearest four-year nursing schools, and I wanted that Bachelor of Science in Nursing instead of doing the community college route to an Associate Degree before working towards a bachelor’s degree.

Both schools accepted me after reviewing my transcripts, and to sweeten the pot, when I let my sister know my plans, she and her husband the policeman, offered to let me live with them if I attended UNC-C.

I moved to Shelby, NC and my new living arrangement for the next two years. I took a job at Target unloading trucks at three AM to have some money. After having achieved management status in my previous work, I found myself working for someone about half my age and doing a job similar to the one I had in high school thirty years ago didn’t seem like much of an advancement in life, but I held onto the big picture and came to enjoy the physical work and most of the younger people who worked alongside me.

Another life-changing event developed simultaneous to moving to NC. I got in touch with an old friend, Tom, on the internet. We had been very tight in high school and I felt a bit nostalgic the day I found the website named ClassMates. We exchanged emails, he asked if it was alright to let his sister Cheryl know how to get in touch with me. It was more than alright, because we had a history already. We had all three gone together as teens to see Easy Rider on it’s initial release. It was that evening that Cheryl and I struck up a friendship that bordered on a bit more. Tom let on that she wanted to date, but she was already in college and I was still in high school and that scared me. I was never considered a ladies’ man,and now here was a situation was totally unprepared to handle; I declined the opportunity, but we remained good friends. We each met and married other people over time and continued to party in the same crowd. After several years of this, our paths diverged for twenty years, and we both experienced betrayal and divorce. We agreed to meet at a book fair being held at the State Fairgrounds, by a landmark known as “The Rocket”. The monument to the space race was a deactivated vehicle erected by the main gate to the fairgrounds. A fond memory for many South Carolinians is the P.A. summons to “Meet (whoever) at The Rocket”, and now it was ours as a meetup after a long separation.

But the idea of having a closer bond still appealed to us both as I later learned. She lived in Lexington, SC, in the very same apartment we still live in after fifteen years of marriage, and had pursued nursing as a second career like I was doing. She specialized in mental health nursing, which several people observed was fitting to live with me.. We fell in love and married two years later while I was on spring break, and I transferred to the University of South Carolina to finish my nursing bachelor’s program with them.

Returning to the classroom at the age of forty-eight proved a different experience. I was about to move into the upper division of my nursing education, so I would be with many of my classmates regularly as we advanced and were placed in our various smaller clinical groupings.

During one of these clinicals during my spring junior semester that my mental health rotation happened at the local veteran’s hospital. Almost immediately, I felt a kinship with these troubled veterans that I had not felt with other patients before. My memories of military life enabled me to share a vocabulary and manner of speech that allowed us to be more open with each other. Before we left that setting at the end of the clinicals, a representative of the VA (Veterans Administration) talked with us about education and employment opportunities at that hospital. Seeing this as an ideal situation, I applied and was accepted into a program that would allow me to work full time over the summer in the clinical area of my choice, so I chose the Urgent Care (UC) and instantly fell in love with the work.

After that summer, I remained at the UC, working weekends and holidays through my senior year, then slipped into becoming a staff nurse. My being on staff in the UC angered some of the old-timers who maintained that I should have done a year or more on the patient floors prior to being in the UC so that my critical thinking skills would be more developed. This situation highlighted just one of the many ways that Cheryl was invaluable to my nursing career; she said, “You don’t need to listen to any of that! You have good judgment and years of experience that they don’t have.” Bless her, that woman has changed my life for the better in so many ways.

I remained on that staff as the Urgent Care grew into an Emergency Department and allowed me opportunities to learn and advance my craft that would be unlikely at other hospitals. Plus, the privilege and burden of caring for my brothers and sisters that had served, many scarred for life internally, externally, and mentally made every day an opportunity to show kindness, empathy, and swap a few jokes. It’s true that a patient may not know your name but they will remember what you did for them and how you made them feel.

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Robert McManus

Retired RN from VA ER, reader, writer, Southern, Christian, veteran. That’s the bare bones, the trees, not the forest, the whole picture.