Didn’t you used to be a nurse?

cross shape comprised of medican icons in the center of which is the NLM logo

Didn’t you used to be a nurse?

I get this question more often than you might expect—and frankly, a little more often than I would expect.

I am a nurse who presently serves as the director of the National Library of Medicine. I’m the first nurse to direct the Library but not the first licensed health professional to do so. In fact, all of my predecessors have been licensed health professionals—specifically, physicians. I wonder how many of them were asked, “Didn’t you used to be a physician?”

The answer to the nurse question, by the way, is, “No.”

I am a nurse. I didn’t used to be a nurse.

I have an active license as a registered nurse. I am a member of the American Nurses Association. And though I might wait a beat to raise my hand when that call comes over the airline public address system—“Is there a health professional on board? We have an emergency.”—I sometimes do, doing what I can to help but always deferring to someone with more current clinical knowledge.

I don’t even think it’s possible to leave nursing behind. Nursing is as much a calling as a profession. The calling fuels the desire to be a professional with specialized knowledge, operating under a contract with society (Nursing’s Social Policy Statement: The Essence of the Profession, 2010).  One does not forget the knowledge, nor does one abandon the calling.

A commercial years ago used the slogan, “If caring was enough, anyone could be a nurse.” I care, but that does not make me a nurse. I’m a nurse because I possess specific, advanced knowledge about the diagnosis and treatment of the human response to disease, disability, and developmental challenges, and I apply that knowledge to caring for others.  Today, I demonstrate that caring and fulfill my contract with society as the director of the largest biomedical library in the world.

It takes 1,700 women and men to bring to society all the products and services NLM offers. But being a nurse gives me insights into and an understanding of health that help me channel their efforts in different ways. Being a nurse broadens my perspective on what constitutes relevant health information. Being a nurse drives me to connect the knowledge of how to manage a health problem with the skills needed to do it. It highlights that health is a team sport, not a solo pursuit, and that I must create the environment that lets all team members, including patients, their family, and friends, operate at the top of their skills. And as essential as trusted, quality health information is, being a nurse reminds me that information is only part of the equation. Personal motivation, a sense of self-efficacy, and the ability to act in accord with one’s values and outlook on life contribute mightily to someone’s willingness and ability to move toward health—and even how they define health.

Of course, I’m not the only nurse working outside a traditional clinical setting. Nurses do many things, but all fall under nursing’s contract with society: helping people, sick or well, by understanding their human responses to disease, disability, and development and partnering with them to move toward health informed by mutual respect and shaped by our combined talents and skills.

So, no, I didn’t used to be a nurse. I am a nurse. And my job as a nurse is to lead a library.

Come join me in my practice, add your skills and knowledge to the mix, and work with me toward the future of data-powered health.

11 thoughts on “Didn’t you used to be a nurse?

  1. I am often asked what it is like to “be back” in nursing again. As you so well expressed: I never left… it is who I am, how I engage the world, irrespective of what I have done. As always, thank you for your insight and eloquence.
    Richard Martin DNP MBA RN CFP
    Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Future of Nursing Scholar
    Case Western Reserve University

  2. Thanks, Richard and Ed! We got to experience one of the unique intersections in time and space of great nursing in the 20th Century — the Frances Payne Bolton School of Nursing at Case Western Reserve University. Clearly it shaped our lives!!

  3. After nursing school, I went to law school, worked as a legal aid attorney for 20 years. A friend from nursing school became an artist, another an administrator in a health agency, another worked in the courts with foster children. We all remained nurses at heart. For us, nursing wasn’t ever just a job, it’s an immutable part of our identity.

  4. That sounds exactly how I feel! I too work in a Library system as their Health and Safety Officer and I will always be an active RN and proud of my broad experiences in health care.

  5. When I first enrolled in nursing school, while working in a nursing home, I told a cranky old nurse/patient that I had. She didn’t even look at me just shook her head and said,” Nurses are born not made.”

  6. As I lived through my career as an academic faculty member, I was constantly asked if I ever was a ‘real’ nurse or some variation on that line of questioning. I always answer that I am and was always a real nurse.

  7. So many times people fail to see the expansive contributions to healthcare and society nurses can (and do!) make outside of acute care settings. Thank you for showing us one more way nurses can make a difference and impact the future of healthcare. Keep it up!

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