The Top Five Myths in Nursing

In this blog entry, Lisa Ruchti, author of Catheters, Slurs, and Pickup Lines  debunks assumptions about intimacy, race, gender and caring in the nursing industry.

With popular television shows about nursing today, e.g. Nurse Jackie and HawthoRNe, one might think that we know all we need to know about nursing. Even if we don’t watch television, we probably think we understand nursing when we consider how often we or our loved ones find ourselves under nursing care. The truth of the matter is that we couldn’t possibly understand nursing the way a nurse does simply because nurses hide many aspects of their work as part of their job. They know that patients and family members don’t need to be bothered with the specifics of nursing when patients are really interested in their own illness and recovery.

In my research for writing Catheters, Slurs and Pickup Lines, I found that most people did not understand nursing. Even the president of the hospital I studied said, “I don’t care how they do it; I’m just glad they do!” But after years of intensive study of nursing and eight months in a hospital setting, I can honestly say I understand some of the ins and outs of nursing. 

 Check these out. You might be surprised.

 One:  Patients are too weak to want sex.

 I know it is hard to imagine a patient sexually grabbing a nurse, making lewd comments, or even having sex with their visitors. We don’t tend to think of patients as anything other than needy so it might be hard to imagine that patients can exhibit sexual desire. Yet, in an eight month study I conducted, nurses consistently reported these behaviors to me. I found that if nurses were successful at gaining trust of patients, patients sometimes felt entitled to service, attention, or even sex. Interestingly, when patients engaged in sexual behaviors toward nurses, many of which were legally defined as sexual harassment, most nurses did not define these acts as sexual harassment. While new nurses were surprised at sexual behaviors from patients, experienced nurses negotiated them as part of their daily work.

Two:   Patients are never mean.

The majority of the 45 nurses I interviewed avoided describing patient care as involving conflict. They used words like nurture, kindness, and compassion to make it seem like nurses “being caring” was a natural personality characteristic characterized by goodness. Feminist philosopher Eva Kittay discusses this in her work: patients are not usually described as anything other than “needy,” and we don’t tend to think of needy people as causing conflicts for those who provide their care. In my study, however, I found that patients – “ordinary” patients, not “psychiatric” patients – yelled at nurses and even hit them. My focus on identifying conflict is as much about seeing patients clearly as it is about seeing the work of nurses clearly.

Three: Race does not matter in the provision of care.

Women of color nurses worked harder to negotiate racism and xenophobia from patients.  For example, sexual harassment of women of color nurses incorporated multiple aspects of their identities. It is one thing for nurses to manage sexually explicit language or touches; it is quite another when those are combined with racial slurs and epithets.  Imagine that a nurse not only walks in to check on a patient and sees him masturbating, but she is also called a “dirty foreigner.” Or, a nurse is giving a patient a bath, and the patient says you remind him of his mammy.

Four:  Male nurses aren’t as caring as female nurses.

My study shows that men feel called to care and also care well. All the male nurses I interviewed were in the job because they cared. I watched male nurses take great care with their patients. I also observed male nurses have what seems like a “knack” for care, but is actually simply skilled expertise. My findings on men challenge the idea that men don’t want to care or can’t care just because they are men.

Five:    You can’t teach someone how to be caring.

A lot of people, including nurses, think that the quality of care cannot be taught in nursing school. My study maps how experienced nurses care so that it can be taught in nursing school. When I first began the study I was not sure if and how a nursing student could be taught what is typically seen as a “caring quality”. But after the study I am convinced that if new nurses know to expect conflict on the floor and learn how they can negotiate those conflicts they will be better able to care.

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