Why the professor became a nurse


My transition toward nursing began when I had my son, Conrad. He was born in August 1996, and I was teaching writing at Tufts during his first year. Having a baby, changing diapers, planning paper-grading around nap time and often feeling so tired I wanted to cry felt like a head-on collision with nonacademic reality, but a happier, more nourishing version of real life, and of family, than I knew growing up.

From Conrad I learned principles that I now understand as integral to being a good nurse: that a hug and a smile can alleviate sadness, that being emotionally generous is never wrong and that I’m more physically resilient than I knew. When I became pregnant again 2½ years later with twins, Miranda and Sophia, I had to apply those principles aggressively just to get through my days.

Born four weeks early, the twins were healthy but tiny, and Conrad, used to being the only kid in the house, would say, “I want the sisters to go back in mommy’s belly.” The first years of the twins’ babyhood, while Conrad was a toddler, live in my memory as a blur of laundry, breastfeeding, diapers and deep exhaustion. My husband, Arthur Kosowsky, who’s a professor of physics, had been my graduate school boyfriend at the University of Chicago, and wanted to be an involved father, but was also working to get tenure at Rutgers University.

They were the hardest years of my life, yet I also felt the most useful, the most satisfied, the most wonderfully human I ever have. From that paradox I learned the most important lesson: Real life may be challenging, may tax you beyond belief, but it isn’t by nature scary. Once I understood that, I was ready to embrace a different career—nursing.

In truth, the “Why would a professor become a nurse?” question needs to be turned on its head. The true puzzle is not why I quit being a professor and turned to nursing, but why I became a professor at all when nursing now feels like the job I was meant to do.

Some nurses may see this as sentimental claptrap, another annoying elaboration of the “nurse as angel/mother” stereotype. What about missing lunch; not sitting down all day; never getting enough institutional respect; having more and more responsibilities dumped on us every time we turn around; and coping with trauma, death, crazy families and difficult bosses who never seem to understand what we’re up against every day on the floor? Where’s the joy in that?

I share those frustrations and acknowledge they can be difficult to live with. Yet I return, shift after shift, because even with all the hurdles, I always find joy in making a difference in people’s lives in a very real, down-to-earth way. In the same way a baby’s smile can make sleepless nights and dirty diapers worth it, so the chance to help someone who really needs help, even if they don’t know it or may not ever be able to acknowledge it, is deeply gratifying.

“This is a dirty job,” another nurse recently told me. In addition to poop and pee and vomit and blood, patients can be downright ornery or hopelessly confused, and the system itself often seems designed to drive nurses crazy. All of that is far removed from the protected life of books and ideas I wanted to achieve as a professor, but that realness is what I like most about nursing. As a nurse, my work is about as unprotected as possible, and I find it rich beyond belief.

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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