Why Did You Become a Nurse?
Guest editorial by Dawn Marino RN, BSN, HNB-BC  

Why did you become a Nurse? This is the question Florence Nightingale faced over and over again from her family and friends. Nursing in the 1840s was considered a lowly trade (yes trade, not a profession at all!) and not fit for “a gentlewoman.” Below you will hear about Nightingale’s answers to this question and the impact she had on nursing. But just for a moment, imagine your answer… 

Why did you become a Nurse? Clearly nursing is not the most glamorous profession. Dealing with body fluids and excretions is probably not your first reason for choosing nursing. Inflicting pain on people in order to help them is probably not right up there either. Was it the 12-hour shifts and on call time? Perhaps it was the dubious appeal of working 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. and being on a totally opposite schedule to the rest of the world. 

Ok, so those are some of the “less than appealing” aspects of a nursing career. But there are rewards. I’m thinking they come in two basic categories of reasons for being a nurse: altruistic (for the benefit of others), and egoistic (for the benefit of self). 

Let’s start with the first kind of benefit to the nursing profession: Altruism - the unselfish concern for the welfare of others; selflessness. Nurses help people. It’s that simple. In 2012, nurses once again appeared at the top of Gallup’s annual survey of “Most Trusted Professions.” The perception of our profession is that we care in many different forms of that word. Some dictionary definitions of “care” include: 
  • Watchful oversight and paying close attention - e.g. our professional assessments.
  • Painstaking application – e.g. the professional physical ministrations we provide. 
  • Attentive assistance or treatment to those in need – note the word “attentive” which elevates nurses above “just doing the job.”
All these attest to our scientific foundation of care and expertise. But nursing is also an art. Here are more definitions of “care” that speak to this aspect of nurses:
  • To be concerned or interested: Our patients are not just objects but multifaceted human beings with complex needs. 
  • Charge or supervision: Families leave their precious loved ones in our “care” with the expectation we will treat them with the same respect and consideration we would want for our own loved ones.
  • To have a liking or attachment: The nurse/patient relationship is not a one way street. Each contact engages and changes the nurse, too. 
Our training for all of this caring is increasingly complex and our knowledge base ever expanding. Many nurses seek higher degrees to meet the growing demands of the sophisticated science and art of nursing care. Nurses help people. And in doing so, we receive the unmatched satisfaction of knowing that we have made a difference to patients and their families. This might be considered a spiritual reward for service.

Now let’s the address other category of rewards: Egoistic - devoted to one's own interests and advancement. Nursing offers some creature comforts not found in other careers:
  • Job security even in shaky economic times
  • Reasonably good wages often accompanied by excellent benefits
  • Additional wage compensation for overtime
  • Portability: often easy to go anywhere and find a job
  • Flexibility: yes those night shifts can be desirable for some; e.g. families struggling with child care
  • Possibility of “moving up the ladder” to management
  • Diversity: Wide variety of specialties and career options 
  • Relatively short educational preparation for entry level: Associate 2-year degree RN
These rewards offer nurses financial security in their careers. Clearly the nursing profession benefits the individual and society by offering gainful employment with wages that allow people to support themselves and their families. These might be considered physical rewards for service.

Clearly both categories of “reward” (altruistic and egoistic) are valuable, necessary, and important to the nursing profession. Although they may seem like complete opposites, they have one thing in common: the patient. None of the physical rewards would be available without them. The caring aspect of nursing is the critical element, assuring that patients will continue to trust us and allow us into their most intimate, vulnerable moments to provide professional nursing. Only by keeping “care” at the center of nursing practice can nurses assure the profession will grow and prosper.

Having read the discussion above, do you have a better idea of why you became a nurse?

OK, so back to Florence Nightingale. She was born in 1820 in England. By 1849, her family was distraught that she had not yet married (despite a perfectly good gentleman proposing). She had other plans. She wanted to go to a Protestant nursing school in Germany (one of the few available at the time). Her parents were appalled, so they sent her off on a long journey with friends of the family. Being a strong Christian, she prayed daily. During the journey she writes: “God called me in the morning and asked me ‘Would I do good for Him, for Him alone without self interest’.” This is one example of her spiritual calling to nursing (category altruism above). With her spiritual fervor as her fire, she engaged her keen mind to overcome the severe restrictions of the time against women in paid or advisory positions.

Nightingale was a statistician and scientist at heart. She established hygienic measures for the British Army during the Crimean war in the Scutari hospital and decreased the mortality among wounded soldiers from 60 percent to 1 percent. She kept careful records of what worked and what didn’t –perhaps beginning “evidence based” practice in nursing. This amazing accomplishment and her volumes of careful records brought her to the attention of the British government. They engaged her in public health efforts, and she received support for establishing the first “modern” nursing school in England. In the category of egoism in nursing, Nightingale persisted in shifting attitudes to allow nursing to become a paid profession (previously, reputable women were only paid as governesses or tutors). What was her answer to the question “Why did you become a nurse?” She might have said “because it was my ‘must’.” It was her calling to do “good.” It was her passion to make nursing a respectable, well-compensated profession. What is your answer to this question? This month, take some time to reflect on your reasons for joining the nursing profession and in particular, the specialty of Holistic Nursing. 


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