Pediatric oncology nurse David Metzger started out as a sculptor, but his life as an artist left him wanting something more out of life. He eventually decided to pursue pediatric nursing to take care of children that have been diagnosed with cancer. Since changing careers, he has become known as “Nurse Papa” at UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital in San Francisco and online where he hosts his own podcast on being a caregiver and father to his two children.
He recently shared what it’s like to take care of other people’s children as a parent after releasing his debut book, “Nurse Papa: 16 Meditations on Parenthood from a Pediatric Oncology Nurse.”
After 15 years in pediatrics, Metzger has learned a lot about what it means to be a parent. He realized he made the right career move after taking care of his first pediatric patient.
“I ended up taking care of a little girl who didn’t have any parents at the bedside, and she was crying,” he said. “So, I just picked her up and started singing to her. I realized that she was just afraid. And I had this, like, moment of clarity where I was like, ‘Oh, I can be a pediatric nurse and it’s something I can be really good at.’”
He started writing the book in between shifts after realizing “there are so many ways to be a caregiver and there’s so many ways to be taken care of.”
The book details some of the lessons he’s learned over the years.
“I felt it was really important that people had access to these rarefied situations where there’s so much drama and there’s so much pain and joy, and it’s all there together,” he explained. “Sometimes these things are unresolved and sometimes people are hurt. But we all keep growing.”
Metzger’s career has also had a strong impact on his two children, both of whom are now old enough to understand his profession.
“They see me come home in scrubs,” he said. His daughter “is really interested in my patients and what I do,” he added. “She’s always [like], ‘Papa, tell me about the hospital. Tell me what you did today?’” he added. “And you know that gets tricky sometimes ‘cause sometimes it’s hard to tell these stories.”
He has decided to take the honest approach when talking to his kids. He follows their lead in terms of what they want to know to help them be “humane, compassionate people.”
Metzger also answers listeners’ questions on parenting on his podcast “Nurse Papa” during the segment “Dear Nurse Papa”.
“What I really want to do is to normalize the experience of being a parent,” he said. “It is not easy. I have made so many mistakes. I think this morning I’ve made a thousand mistakes with my kids already. I think that if you are aware of your mistakes, and that you acknowledge them, that means that you’re doing an OK job.”
He hasn’t abandoned his ambition to be an artist either. His latest creation is a stethoscope decorated with colorful wristbands that his patients have given him over the years.
“Some of these kids are living, some are not,” he said. “But it’s just been a way to remember them.”
He tries his best to not take the sadness home with him after a tough day at work, but it’s not always easy.
“You do,” he replied with a soft laugh. “I mean, it’s just part of it …The opportunity to be there at bedside with these children, even when they’re sick, even when they’re dying, has been, like, the greatest gift that I have ever been given because it’s really shown me what life is all about.”