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The soul of a nurse

By: Kathleen Sullivan, BSN, RN

In the beginning

What is that first spark of desire in the mind of an ordinary person to become a nurse and where does it come from? Could it simply be the desire to help others, in a more definitive way, or is it a nudge from the divine? Maybe, it’s purely the natural evolution of an essence, present in a child, to guide them toward their destiny, just like in the evolution of life itself?

Many of today’s nurses have never known any other career and were fortunate to fall into the profession early on. Some of us took a more convoluted path toward our ultimate destination. Statistics show us that hospitals all over the world continually mix new hopeful grads, who know nothing of the “good old days” of nursing with long-timers. This mix of fresh novices with seasoned nurses could easily equate to an artist’s palette that yields a variety of textures and colors bursting to create a great masterpiece.

In the beginning, there may only be a vague idea in the mind of a nurse as to how they want their career to turn out. This would be similar to when a poet sits down to commit to paper multiple phrases circling around them. The first steps in a career of nursing could also be compared to the first few stumbling notes on a piano when a composer sets out to write a symphony. Nursing is all of this and more. Whatever drew us into it, we all share the same burning desire to help the sick, the weary and the worn amongst us. Disease comes in many forms as do our valued nurses and support staff in any hospital.


What, you may ask, is required by society for a person with good intentions to become a nurse? The attainment of the dreaded college degree lies in wait for those brave souls who would dare to become a nurse. In hallowed halls that reek of austerity and lined with portraits of past honorees of phi theta kappa and magna cum laude, they trek a solitary path towards personal greatness. The prelude to this would have been the achievement of a high-school diploma, or in the absence of such, a couple of years of prerequisite classes followed by an associate of science degree at a local community college.

It’s the work of a nursing college professor to mold, or in some cases rebuild, the applicant into the well-rounded professional they aspire to become. This includes endless hours of self-study and homework assignments. Anyone who has worked hard for something in their life can relate to the effort required to achieve this kind of dream. The sacrifices made are enormous.

Personal free time has to be ditched while friends go out to party and live life. Family gatherings are missed and holidays are left uncelebrated as the burning desire to become a nurse leads the person to burn through textbooks and lecture notes, in pursuit of that Holy Grail—the nursing degree. Students are taught that nursing is an art and a science. The science part comes in the shape of a 4-year baccalaureate degree from an approved college or university. The art comes after the absorption and ownership of the knowledge in the subsequent application of it. There is no education for the art. It has to be an entirely individual creative expression of the science. Each nurse will find their own personal style and create a unique piece of art just like any other artist in the world might do.

A day in the life

Punching-in on the time clock might seem like an ordinary thing to do, like an assembly line worker at a car plant up in the northern states. However, a nurse who punches in is committing to the belief that, within that measured amount of time, a difference will be made in the life of another human being. The difference may be slight or life changing. No one knows at that precise moment what will unfold during one 12-hour shift. The possibilities are infinite.

From the moment a nurse awakens in the morning to when they punch their number into that time clock, deep-rooted preparations inside a soul are being made. A fresh page of desire and fortitude has opened inside that heart. During the drive in to work, some say prayers, others meditate, and still others blast music and sing along. They do whatever it takes to get to the mindset needed to unleash every drop of courage for the battle ahead.

Hope, respect, knowledge, gratitude, confidence, and technical abilities rush to the surface. Nurses bring all these gifts into the hospital daily in the pockets of their uniforms and in the deeper pockets of their souls. Also rising are the endless amounts of wisdom accumulated through generations of nurturing and love from their upbringing and the life experiences of parents, grandparents, great grandparents, and beyond. Through the scientific study of human chromosomes we know that, in part, our ancestors are us and we are them. Might this molecular information allude to where nurses are really prepared for their day and their career choice? Could this be the blueprint right here?

The battle

The magic happens when nursing staff on any unit, on any given day, come together to save lives with other medical professionals and support staff. An example of this is when the code-blue alarm rings and we run to take a stand at the bedside of that patient. We are present in the moment to follow policies and protocols as defined by hospital administration and national governing bodies. We gather at the bedside of a patient who is failing and not responding to treatment. One or more of their vital organs is not working. What each of us does, during those 20 minutes or so, will profoundly affect the patient and their family for years to come.

This is where the science comes to the forefront, but there is also a spiritual component to be found in the art or application of that science. There is awareness that each of us has a soul that answers to a higher countenance. Nurses give their whole selves every day in mind, body, and spirit. It isn’t just a job on a production line. Nursing is a total commitment to a way of life, a vocation, a calling to which not everyone gets the call or text.

Who or what are we fighting with? Some may say they are fighting illness and widespread disease in the community where they tirelessly work. Others may say they are fighting against a political system in which some easily survive while others suffer greatly. Those of us who have been doing it for a while know that what we are actually fighting is time! There is never enough of it—nor staff, nor stuff—to do the job in the way we were trained to do. We do our best with what we have in the battle against an out-of-control pandemic. We are all of us chasing snowballs down a vast and unforgiving slope.

History and future

Where break rooms once echoed with stories of legends from another time, there is only silence punctuated by the sounds of grab bags and lunch pails being rifled. There is no time to talk anymore. Nurses must eat quickly within the designated 30-minute break and return to work immediately.

Twenty years ago, the average age of an intensive care RN was 45 years old. It might have slipped lower now with the influx of new grads into the critical care arena. What these new nurses lack in experience is compensated by the backpacks they bring loaded with new and efficient ways of doing things, higher energy, and good intentions. Some are a force to be reckoned with and shine light on the future of nursing. Many are fast tracking upwards in the education domain toward attaining master’s degrees with hopes of making it all the way to nurse practitioner status, just like many before them.

Older nurses, with a high ability to adapt and teach from the experience amassed during countless years at the bedside are fading out. This is all part of the cycle of evolution as it pertains to any profession. Who will be at the bedside when they are all gone? That is the emerging question for hospital administrators all over this great country of ours, as the middle age-range of nurses have gone off in search of better working conditions elsewhere. Many of them took off from regular jobs in local hospitals to work in corona virus cluster areas around the country.

Nursing colleges are reporting a boom in applications for admission because people were inspired by images of bravery and devotion when they saw nurses on the television during the early days of the current pandemic. There is new hope for the profession as each new generation brings with it current learning in scientific breakthroughs and also the up-to-date application of it. Nursing is both a science and an art form. In the United States, the nursing profession is currently composed of the soul of many nurses—four million strong.

Despite the current chaos and drama in hospitals brought about by the pandemic and nursing shortages, it remains our hope as nurses that the whole will represent more than the sum of all of its parts. Every touch of love and act of science-based care should be counted toward victory in the end.

Kathleen Sullivan works as a neuro ICU nurse in St. Petersburg, Florida.


The views and opinions expressed by Perspectives contributors are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions or recommendations of the American Nurses Association, the Editorial Advisory Board members, or the Publisher, Editors and staff of American Nurse Journal. These are opinion pieces and are not peer reviewed.

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