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Nurses on nursing: Portraits of American nurses


Brian McMillion, RN, MSN, MBA-HCM
VA San Diego Healthcare System
San Diego, Caif.

For the past year, I’ve been working with Warriors in Transition. My job is taking care of injured soldiers. Any concern you have just pales in comparison to the challenges these soldiers are facing.

My family has a long history of military service. Both my grandfathers were in the Navy, and have fifty-two years of service between them. My father was in the Air Force and brought the family to Japan for his tour.

At 18, my dad gave me a little lecture about going into the service, he didn’t think I was ready for school. I was a bit rebellious, and the military gave me structure and taught me discipline.

When it came time to decide what I wanted to do in the military, I gravitated toward medical care, which I got interested in when I was fourteen. My grandfather had Lou Gehrig’s disease. The nurse who took care of him treated me like an adult, taught me all kinds of things, and gave me confidence.

I was called up for the first Gulf War. It was scary. Sometimes we had to wear a lot of protective gear because of the threat of chemical attack. Luckily we did not experience that. We moved away from the border of Iraq and set up a staging area for our hospital. It was fascinating to work in an ER where six different languages were spoken and the beliefs about emergency response activities were completely different.

After being on active duty, I got hired at the VA as a medical-supply technician where I got to see the lifestyle of a nurse. So I became an LPN, then an RN with an associate’s degree, and then I got a master’s degree in nursing.

In the end, my experiences in active duty inspired more than traumatized me. They made me realize how blessed I was just to wake up each morning with all my limbs, without needing painkillers, and without having experienced nightmares all night. I also realized that if I can help one of these guys, I can continue to do this work.

I never thought I’d be in the military after 25 years, but it’s been rewarding in many ways.

Carly Turner, BSN, RN
The Johns Hopkins Hospital
Baltimore, Md.

We’re a critical care truck–Lifeline Transport. We transport patients between facilities and also within the hospital. We also have a flight team. There’s nothing outside the scope of nursing that we can’t handle.

I started out in the ICU. It is so busy in the ICU that you can’t always spend a lot of time talking to a patient. In this job you actually get to step outside the medicine part of nursing. When you’re sitting in an ambulance with a patient, you can really learn a lot in 15 minutes.

I think the essence of being a nurse is being able to adapt each person and be intuitive and understanding. For example, I was taking care of this woman in neuro ICU; she’d been diagnosed with a brain tumor and was basically at the point of herniation. She did go brain dead and her husband decided to donate her organs.

He was sitting by her bed, and I was trying to be supportive. He told me that exactly a year ago on that very day, he and his wife got a knock on the door at two o’clock in the morning. It was the police saying that their daughter was in the hospital. He said that was impossible, she was in her room. It turned out that the daughter had snuck out of the house, gotten into a car accident and been killed. He broke down saying he didn’t think he could get through it without his wife, after already losing his daughter.

It gave me chills. There was nothing I could say to take away his pain. I just cried with him. Later he told me that it meant a lot to him to see my emotions. Sometimes just being human and letting go can be helpful to the families.

You never know what people are going through. Everyone is special. Everyone has a story.

Sometimes you get so wrapped up in how busy it is that you just forget to be a person–like just introducing yourself. You have to stop and think, if it was me how would I want to be treated? I think that sometimes we have to remember that this is a person—not just a diagnosis or a room number. It’s about human interaction, showing compassion and relating to someone.

For videos of these nurses describing how they got into the profession and how it gives their lives meaning, click here.

From The American Nurse, Photographs and Interviews by Carolyn Jones. Welcome Books. Text & Photographs 2012 © Carolyn Jones. 

Carolyn Jones
Carolyn Jones is an internationally-recognized photojournalist and an award-winning filmmaker. Learn more about Jones and The American Nurse Project at:

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