One of the first things we learned in nursing school is that nursing is a vocation. The English word “vocation” is derived from the Latin word vocatio, which means “a call or a summons”. Thus, nursing is distinguished from other occupations which may fall into the category of “profession” or “job”. Knowing that we were pursuing something as noble as a vocation made us nursing students feel quite sophisticated. Even though in the mid-90’s at my alma mater we had to wear white sneakers and a pinafore for clinical, which, by the way, is the opposite of sophisticated.
People inevitably assume that nurses have selfless, altruistic motives for pursuing their vocation. Indeed, I have many colleagues who became nurses for such reasons. Some of them had a positive experience with a nurse who cared for one of their sick family members. Often nursing spans many generations, leaving a long family legacy of nurses who talk about gory hospital details around the Thanksgiving table. Obviously, we didn’t go into it for the money (though I will admit that compensation for nurses has improved in recent years). Job security is a big plus that many speak of.
I think that nursing ended up being a good career choice for me, and makes good use of my personality and my skills. I have never been a good traditional classroom learner, in the sense that sitting and listening bores me to death, as does any kind of desk job. The practical side of nursing and the hands-on skills work well for me in that way. Also, I think that my tendency toward OCD is an asset, rather than a liability, in my chosen profession. Bonus points when you can make your mental health issues work for you, right?
However, the way that I stumbled into my profession is not at all noble, and, in fact, borders on ridiculous. I actually like telling this story because it amuses me, so some of my closer friends and family will have to forgive me for the re-telling of it.
I did not enjoy school. High school was particularly traumatic for me, and I still have recurring dreams about it that make we wake up in a cold sweat. I was a good student, however, and it was expected that I would go to university ( or “college”, for my American friends). I had no idea what I wanted to do, and I really had no aspirations at that time. Wait, I take that back. Up until the end of 10th grade I wanted to be a dancer! I was going to go to Julliard and the whole nine. If you need a visual for what that would look like, let me give you one:
wait for it….
OK, now that we have that image burned into our retinas, let’s move along shall we? Besides being a world famous dancer, what I always knew I wanted was to get married, have children, and raise a family. But I had to finish my education to get my parents off my back, so….off I went. Though I grew up and went to high school in Canada, I chose a small Christian liberal arts college in Rochester NY. There were several things I liked about that school, but the main reason I went was because they allowed me to transfer my “grade 13” (which Ontario had at the time) high school credits into my freshman year, so I could transfer in as a sophomore. This meant I could complete my Bachelor’s degree in 3 years instead of 4. Which meant this whole exercise of getting an education would be over quicker–score!! I thought at the very least I could meet cute boys. (Too bad I didn’t know at the time that the school had a 2:1 female to male ratio and all the other girls had the same goal!).
I chose to major in social work with a psychology minor. Since I didn’t have any real career aspirations, what I was looking for in a major was for courses that looked easy. Like the kind of course that I could show up for class but not have to work too hard. This is amusing to me now because there is absolutely NOTHING about being a social worker that is easy. However, those intro courses were pretty simple for me to coast through. But….I didn’t really like them. And I figured I should like my major. So at the end of my first semester (midway through my sophomore year now), I made my way down to student services to consult with one of the career counselors.
I took one of those tests where you fill in the bubbles with a #2 pencil, and then it spits out this report of your strengths and weaknesses, with potential careers that would be a good fit. The test showed a strong affinity toward the medical field, and the career counselor suggested that I go and talk to the Director of Nursing. She was this older woman, the not-so-smiley type, you could say. Uber-serious. She said my grades were good enough to be accepted into the program, but because I had missed a lot of the prerequisites I would have to take 1-2 semesters to catch up, and would have to graduate with the class of 1998, instead of 1997. She said that it was possible to try to catch up with my class, but it would be really hard and hectic and I *probably* couldn’t do it. Oh. Hell no. I came to this school to graduate in 3 years, and I was not going to spend a whole extra year catching up! Also, who did she think she was, telling me I “probably couldn’t do it”? I could do it if I wanted to! So there. Turns out, in addition to being unmotivated and lacking in career aspiration, I was also equal parts stubborn and defiant. Also good nursing qualities, right my fellow nurses?
So I decided to show that crotchety lady who didn’t believe I could catch up, that I could. It turned out to be just the push that I needed, and gave me some focus with a clear goal to work toward. I called my parents after I switched my major to tell them the good news. I figured my mom, who was an OR nurse for 25 years, would be excited. “Oh Tracy, don’t go into nursing!”, she said, experienced as she was with the not-so-desirable aspects of her profession. I’m going to be honest with you and, mom,– I am so, so sorry–but the fact that my parents told me not to do it MADE ME WANT TO DO IT EVEN MORE! Again, mom and dad, I love you, thanks for putting up with me all these years. But, then again, your stubborn apple didn’t fall far from the tree–just saying.
I am proud that I am a nurse, and I am thankful that I have a skill set and experience that allows me to be consistently employable and to help others. Like I said, it has been a good fit for me. But is this my “calling”? Was I “summoned” to a life of serving the sick and infirm? Well, you just heard my story, so obviously, no. But I do believe that I am in a unique position to “bloom where I have been planted”, so to speak, and use my skills and experience to serve and help others. However, if tomorrow God decided to summon me to a life of reading books on the couch in my sweat pants, I would not at all grieve the loss of my nursing career!
I personally think that it is a little presuming and self-promoting to call nursing a vocation. To, in one breath, say that you were called to an altruistic profession, and yet in the next breath, toot your own horn for said altruism. It implies that being a nurse is somehow more noble and more holy than being a teacher, an engineer, a custodian, an accountant, or a garbage man. Can God use me as a nurse? Yes, I believe so. But it is so interesting to me that in the Bible, God also used the most unusual people to do His work–a prostitute (Rahab), a Samaritan (dude from the wrong side of town), a banished criminal (Moses), a pre-pubescent shepherd boy (David), and a carpenter’s Son.
I would like to leave you with this thought. Let’s just all take a moment to THANK GOD that he chose to use me–my skills, my gifts, and my life–as a nurse, and not as a dancer.