The army, the dole or nursing? NP Andy McLachlan reflects on falling into the career that turned him from a boy into a man. And the need to attract more men and more Māori and Pacific into nursing.
“What do you do?” “I’m a nurse!”
“What?” “You know, a nurse!” (Slightly more forced).
“You’re a NURSE, a MALE nurse?”
There it is.
I think most nurses who are men (and yes, therefore a male nurse) will have had this conversation through their careers. The conversation can then go a number of ways.
“Wow that’s cool!” “Yes it is.”
“Are you gay?” “No, but I am sometimes kinda fabulous in my own wee way.”
“Do they call you matron?” “Only my fabulous male colleagues.”
“Why did you pick nursing?” “Indeed.”
Nursing kind of picked me. I grew up in Thatcher’s Scotland in the 80s when traditional industries were being wiped out and job opportunities dwindled to job creation schemes – you know the type of inspiring role where you dig a hole and then, well … fill it back in again. Johnny Rotten was screaming “NO FUTURE” in my ears and alcohol was cheap and available to kill the despair (and your dreams). At 19 years old, my options were the army (not a good choice for a pacifist and Smiths fan) or the dole – until an old teacher suggested I think about being a nurse. A male nurse, what the heck would I have to do?
The rest is history; nursing turned that boy into a man. I experienced life and death and a lot of the in-between fugue of helping people endure terrible ill health. I encountered people at their best and during their most crushing emotional moments. I also regularly laughed so much and so hysterically (usually at 3am night shift) that I thought I would pee myself. Nurses can be very funny people both funny ha ha and funny, well, downright weird.
I’ve met some of the most inspiring and selfless people who make me want to try harder to be a great nurse. I’ve worked with some really cool characters who emit knowledge, confidence, and compassion like a summer breeze wherever they go. When things got tough, I have always found my colleagues ready to share my load, even when they are struggling with theirs because they know I would always do the same for them.
I have also encountered (just a few – maybe I was lucky) creepy and mean nurses who took delight in being horrible, but I keep them in a wee box in my head that I scare my kids with now and again when I need a good role model for a baddie for a bed time story.
I have worked in three continents as a nurse and had a blast … but I’m worried. I am one of the more than half of all nurses forecast to retire in the next 20 years, just as the demand for more healthcare – pick any one of the epidemics of obesity, dementia, heart disease, etc. – is expected to peak, leaving a nursing shortage of around 15,000 nurses.
Despite some good nursing press and media showing all types of people being successful as nurses – ER, Shortland St, Something About Mary, and definitely not Grey’s Anatomy – we have failed to attract men and Māori and Pacifica students into nursing in any great number.
We may also be in danger of losing the next generation of young iPad-linked, Google Glass-wearing, constantly texting Gen Y’ers (how’s that for a stereotype) as they see a number of exciting new career opportunities that pay better, provide a greater work life balance, and don’t involve bedpans or a profession that struggles to describe its critical role.
We have to keep nurses in the workforce once trained and entice more New Zealand nurse graduates, especially Māori and Pacific young people, and dare I say, men. Saving the New Zealand healthcare system from a wave of unregistered, untrained, and unsustainable (physician assistant?) workforce can’t just be the role of the government but should be talked about at every tea room across this great land of ours.
Would I recommend nursing to a young man: yes, I would, but only when we have a staff meeting where our leaders don’t greet us with “morning ladies”… don’t you know there is a MALE nurse present!
By Andy McLachlan, cardiology nurse practitioner at Middlemore Hospital and president of the Australasian Cardiovascular Nursing College.
May 23 2014