Field of dreams


Shifting Gears          

One of the great things about nursing is that switching specialties and jobs is relatively easy. A misguided career choice is fixable. Working in a teaching hospital with a lot of critically ill patients was more stress than Christine Lui from California felt able to handle. She had great coworkers and learned a lot, but only felt satisfied in her work after transferring to a smaller community hospital with fewer acutely ill patients. Similarly, Ellen Adrian from Oregon left her job as an ICU nurse because the physically grueling 12-hour shifts were too much for her chronic back pain; she’s now an IV nurse, teaching PICC (Peripherally Inserted Central Catheters) line insertion techniques.

The reasons behind our career choices may not be completely clear at first, but when you find the right fit, they gel over time. Last fall, en route to New Haven, Conn., to speak at Yale University, I pressed myself to dig a little deeper into my motivation for choosing oncology. That’s when a new reason popped up from wherever it had been sequestered: My mother is a cancer survivor.

Bam!—on an airplane, I suddenly confronted the fear I had spent four years pretending I had no intimate knowledge of. Almost two decades ago my mother was diagnosed with hairy cell leukemia, a rare form of cancer. She was given a minimum 10-year life expectancy, but after nine years a new treatment was discovered. She got continuous chemo for a few weeks through an infusion pump on her arm, had no side effects, never missed a day of work and has been in complete remission ever since.

Done. Open and shut. A blip on the screen of life, or at least that’s how we think of it in the family. I rarely thought about my mother’s illness while I was at work, but I now view that avoidance for what it is: denial. I also understand that a huge part of why I went into oncology was to give back to the system that saved my mother’s life.

I knew none of this when I was finishing school and starting to think about jobs. It took four years working as an oncology nurse for the realization to surface. In another four years, who knows where I’ll be? Perhaps I will have figured out something new or had a gut feeling about what I want from a job, and then like nurses everywhere, I’ll accept a position in a new field entirely and find myself as a nurse all over again.

Theresa Brown, RN
Theresa Brown, RN, lives and works in the Pittsburgh area. She received her BSN from the University of Pittsburgh, and during what she calls her past life, a PhD in English from the University of Chicago.

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