Critical Care With Theresa Brown

critical-care-theresa-brownIn the new book, 'Critical Care: A New Nurse Faces Death, Life and Everything in Between' (2010, HarperCollins Publishers), Theresa Brown examines life as a first-year nurse in medical oncology after leaving her life in academia to become a registered nurse (RN) in a field that she describes as "just feeling right."

Brown, a former Tufts University English professor and regular contributor to the New York Times "Well" blog, uses clear, concise and elegant language to make the morbid and terrifying more palatable. She does not overwhelm her readers with technical terms or jargon, but instead uses honest and creative writing to convey the emotions and experiences of being on the frontlines of medicine.

With a writer's rhythm, Brown tells the story of her remarkable journey from academia to a job that she loves and hates, but continues to do. She explains how she learned to do the job of a nurse in the field, why she loves the job, why she hates the job, and why she keeps on doing it day after day despite the constant challenges.

critical care"No one can fight for their life without having some suffering mixed in, at least not the way we practice medical oncology right now," she writes on page 11. "And that's where nurses come in. Doctors heal, or try to, but as nurses we step into the breach, figure out what needs to be done for any given patient today, on this shift, and then, with love and exasperation, do it as best we can."

'Critical Care' is more than just the story of one woman's journey, or about the health-care field today, it is about finding what you love to do and embracing it as best you can. You will learn more than just about medicine and the oncology world from Brown's debut book; this book has something to teach all of us.

Q&A with Theresa Brown

Q. Once you began your journey to become a nurse, did you ever feel like you had made the wrong decision?

A. There were a few times when I wondered whether I should have gone to medical school instead of nursing school; but those thoughts never lasted, and I never doubted my decision to go into health care. At times I envied the physicians' knowledge base (and their authority), but the close contact nurses have with patients always drew me back to nursing and kept me there. I have NEVER, not once, regretted switching careers from English professor/teacher to nurse.

Q. What did you find to be the biggest surprise about nursing once you began applying what you learned in the classroom to practice in the field?

A. Probably how varied and at times random the days can be. Physically, patients can be all over the map in terms of the symptoms they manifest, and the severity of those symptoms can change a lot during a 12-hour shift. But also, patients' emotional and intellectual needs constantly shift and change. The nice thing is, good news, jokes, smiles, and laughs can also surprise us all during a shift.

Q. What was exactly as you anticipated it would be once you became a certified RN?

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A. I thought it would be hard work and long days. I was right.

Q. How did you reconcile the emotional stress that comes with nursing and having a family of your own?

A. My family has ended up being the antidote to my work stress. For me the best salve for the pain caused by all the death I see is to hug my kids.

Q. What made you decide to write this book?

A. The short answer is that Bob Miller (her editor, now president of Workman Publishing), offered me a lot of money! Once I got the book contract the writing just flowed. I wasn't aware I had a story to tell; but at times it felt like the book was writing itself and I was just there to transcribe the narrative running in my head.

Q. What do your future writing plans entail?

A. I will continue to write for the Well blog and the Times. There will be a second book, but the idea behind it is still forming. It will again be stories from my work life, but probably framed more broadly about health care, the importance of doing work you love, and struggling with life and death.

Q. Has working in medicine changed your appreciation for things or changed your outlook on life or things?

A. Definitely! I have a new appreciation of life and how precious each day is. I'm much better than I used to be at shrugging off nonsense or just laughing at it. I'm also much more impatient with selfishness, much more focused on being kind.

Q. Has becoming a nurse had any negative effects on your life, outlook or family over the years?

A. Yes, often when I come home following a 12-hour shift I am so physically and emotionally depleted I have little energy for the kids or my husband. Sometimes I'm so sad about a patient who is not doing well or has died that I'm focused on the hospital even while I'm at home. In those instances I try to persevere -- and perseverance is something parents and nurses have in common.

Q. You describe working in the nursing field as messy and stressful, but you also say that it is a field that you both love and hate, and one in which you will keep working. What do love most about the field or your work as a nurse? What do you hate the most?

A. Love the patients, hate feeling constantly overworked and being pulled in too many directions at once.

Q. What has the field of nursing taught the teacher?

Discipline, the importance of saying what you mean, and of getting things done!

Q. What are the three things in life that you cannot live without?

A. This is a fun question: books, love, and Starbucks.

Q. What advice would you offer to people who are thinking about becoming nurses or who are currently in nursing school.

A. Remember that school is just the beginning of learning how to practice nursing. You learn the job at the hospital and that process of learning never ends, though the learning curve is steepest at the very start.

Remember also that nurses are under a lot of stress and some people handle stress by taking it out on the people around them. For your first job find a floor known to be supportive to new nurses. If you do encounter bullying, find out what you can do about it. If you're being bullied on a floor, most likely other people are, too.

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